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Asbestos on Navy Ships

The military used asbestos in virtually all its infrastructure until the late-1970s. Asbestos use was especially prevalent on ships, where it was used in pipe lagging to insulate pipes, electrical wiring, and even in flooring tiles. In places with poor ventilation such as boiler rooms and engine rooms, asbestos could circulate in the air for hours in an enclosed space, putting anyone who entered at risk.

How Asbestos Was Used on Navy Ships

The military’s extensive use of asbestos between the years of 1930 and 1980 has led to one third of today’s mesothelioma cases being veterans. Of those veterans, those who served in the Navy and the Coast Guard are at the highest risk, because they often served on ships or in shipyards where asbestos related work was prevalent.

Jobs with the highest risk included Boilerman, Machinist Mates, Pipefitters and Hull Technicians. Shipyard workers had to build and tear down ships, and when they did, large amounts of asbestos were released into the air. Mechanics that served on ships were tasked with fixing ship components such as piping, pumps and valves. This often put them in direct contact with asbestos insulation and parts. It wasn’t until the late-1970s that the U.S. military recognized the health risks associated with asbestos exposure.

Since then, the military has removed asbestos from the majority of its infrastructure, though it was impractical to remove all of it. Asbestos still remains in some older ships and buildings; fortunately, it is typically not a health risk as long as it is not disturbed.

Mesothelioma generally presents 15 to 45+ years after exposure to asbestos, so veterans in the Navy and Coast Guard that worked in ships in World War II and the Vietnam and Korean Wars are at the highest risk for developing the disease. Although the vast majority of mesothelioma cases are from extended exposure to asbestos, even the VA admits that the exposure could be brief and indirect.

“As a retired Navy vet, who spent most his time standing watch in the Engine Room, I understand just how common asbestos was in our ships.  As the only retired Navy Veteran Service Representative in the country specializing in asbestos related VA claims, I know what the VA is looking for in your claim for disability compensation for your asbestos disease. And I work tirelessly to make sure every veteran who seeks my help, gets the advice and assistance they deserve”. – Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Navy and Coast Guard Veterans Have the Highest Mesothelioma Risk

Asbestos was used by all branches of the military as a heat-resistant and fireproofing material. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard all used asbestos in some capacity. But Navy and Coast Guard veterans have the highest risk of developing mesothelioma because of the nature of ships and shipyard environments. Inside of ships, sailors are in tight spaces and enclosed areas such as boiler rooms and engine rooms for weeks or months at a time.

When mechanics worked on ship components, they would routinely have to deal with asbestos used to insulate those components, or deal with asbestos materials such as gaskets or valve packing.  This would release asbestos fibers into the air. When the asbestos was released into the air, it would remain airborne for hours. In shipyards, the building, overhauling and decommissioning of ships released massive amounts of asbestos into the air where hundreds of people worked.

Where Asbestos Could Be Found On Ships

In ships, asbestos was used in hundreds of different capacities. Because the material was cheap and very effective at fireproofing ship components, it became quite common on Navy and Coast Guard ships. Asbestos could be found in engine rooms, boiler rooms, navigation rooms, mess halls, and sleeping quarters. Here are some of the components inside those rooms which contained asbestos:

  • Piping
  • Insulation
  • Grinders
  • Gaskets
  • Packing
  • Paneling
  • Caulk
  • Tubing
  • Adhesives
  • Cables
  • Valves
  • Bedding compounds
  • Thermal materials
  • Floor Tiles

When these components were installed, repaired, or removed, they ran the risk of asbestos being released into the air. In ships, that usually meant asbestos being released into a tightly enclosed area. As these components aged, their exteriors wore down and it became harder to avoid disturbing the asbestos and releasing the dangerous fibers into the air.

Some of the Ships Where Asbestos Could Be Found

Asbestos was found on virtually all of the ships built by the Navy and Coast Guard and used between World War II and the late-1970s. From submarines to aircraft carriers, sailors aboard faced the risk of asbestos exposure. You can learn more about exposure while aboard these ships from our Veterans Guide or you can find out where asbestos was aboard these specific types of ships:

By the late-1970s, asbestos was recognized by the military as a significant health risk and removed from the majority of its ships and buildings. Most ships today use non-hazardous alternative materials in place of asbestos.

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