Asbestos on Auxiliary Ships

Quick Summary

Auxiliary ships in the Navy contained massive amounts of asbestos. While there are many types of ships in the Navy’s auxiliary force, seamen had a risk of asbestos exposure on every ship.

Asbestos and Auxiliary Ships Explained

It’s no secret that the United States Navy used asbestos widely on all of its vessels. As early as the 1930s, ships were loaded with the cancer-causing substance. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that ships started being built without the substance.

Asbestos is a light, naturally-occurring mineral. It is an excellent material for insulation and fire resistance. Incidentally, and ironically, insulation is key to safety aboard Navy vessels because of the heat produced aboard. Asbestos was used to prevent fires. And because the substance was cheap, it was used in every applicable scenario possible. This means in ships built before the 1980s, you could find asbestos-containing materials almost anywhere.

Exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. There is no safe amount of asbestos exposure. However, asbestos exposure in confined spaces or to large amounts of airborne fibers is related to a higher risk of developing an asbestos-related illness. Any seaman serving aboard auxiliary ships built prior to asbestos regulations has a risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.

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List of notable auxiliary ships:

  • USNS Sioux
  • USNS Apache
  • USNS Flint
  • USNS Rappahannock

These ships are currently non-commissioned but still owned by the U.S. Navy. They are still in operation as part of the Military Sealift Command. The list of ships that were used in the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force is extensive, including hundreds of different vessels.

These ships are currently non-commissioned but still owned by the U.S. Navy. They are still in operation as part of the Military Sealift Command. The list of ships that were used in the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force is extensive, including hundreds of different vessels.

Did you know?

Although the U.S. Navy used asbestos in all of its ships, the Navy itself is not responsible for the exposure. The responsible parties are the companies who built the asbestos-containing materials aboard the ships. Evidence has proven that asbestos manufacturers knew the mineral could cause cancer.

History of Auxiliary Ships

There are over 40 different types of ships in the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force. This fleet acts as the U.S. Navy’s main supply line to ships remaining at sea. The purpose of the force includes keeping the Navy well-equipped and being available for quick support.

The Auxiliary Force first saw action in WWI. Back then, the fleet consisted of mostly private vessels used to supplement the Navy. In WWII, the fleet became a permanent part of the U.S. Navy. The fleet also served a major role in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Veterans of these wars who served in the Navy are likely to have been exposed to asbestos.

Auxiliary ships are not like other vessels in the Navy. Because auxiliary ships are designated to keep the U.S. Navy fully equipped, there are many different types of ships in this class. Each auxiliary ship has a different design and purpose.

Some of the dominant types of auxiliary ships include:

  • Oilers. Larger vessels that supply ships at sea with fuel.
  • Ammunition ships. Responsible for supply of all types of ammunition.
  • Rescue and salvage ships. Consist of different ships with the goal of rescue and salvage.
  • Repair vessels. Takes care of at-sea repair of Naval vessels.
  • Tugboats. Moves large vessels into port and may help in recovery missions.
  • Fast combat support ships. All-in-one quick supply of fuel, food, ammo, etc.
  • Dry cargo ships. Lewis and Clark class ships supply food and other cargo.

Other kinds of auxiliary ships include:

  • Aircraft transports
  • Amphibious force command ships
  • Auxiliary docks
  • Crane ships
  • Colliers
  • Combat stores ships
  • Command ships
  • Communications relay ships
  • Deep submergence support ship
  • Destroyers tenders
  • Degaussing ships
  • Fleet ocean tugboats
  • Hospital ships
  • Icebreakers
  • Missile range instrumentation ships
  • Motor torpedo boat tenders
  • Ocean surveillance ships
  • Provisions store ships
  • Radar picket ships
  • Small and medium harbor tugs
  • Submarine tenders
  • Surveying ships
  • Technical research ships
  • Transports

Asbestos Exposure Risks

The Navy accounts for the largest percentage of veterans with mesothelioma because of asbestos use on Naval vessels. Not all seaman had the same risk of exposure, certain occupations in the Navy and people who served on different vessels had different exposure risks.

“Still today, all ships whose keels were laid prior to 1980 must be treated as if they contain friable asbestos,” said a 2012 safety training manual from the Navy.

The risks of asbestos exposure on auxiliary ships can vary widely because there are so many different types of auxiliary ships. However, there are common areas aboard ships and jobs that could put seaman at greater risk.

Common locations where asbestos could be found on auxiliary ships include:

  • Engine rooms. Arguably the most dangerous location for asbestos exposure. Seaman who worked as boilerman or on engine repairs may have encountered asbestos in cracked gaskets and insulation.
  • Pump rooms. This area of ships also used a lot of asbestos. Pipefitters saw asbestos when they replaced old gaskets pipes. The confined space of the pump room could have led to more asbestos being inhaled.
  • Turrets. Turrets and large guns require a lot of insulation. This insulation was lined with asbestos. Seaman loading or repairing turrets faced asbestos exposure. Some of the materials for handling turrets, like gloves, may have been made of asbestos fabric.
  • Ward rooms and berthing space. Even the walls and ceiling materials used in auxiliary ships built before the 1980s had asbestos. If the ship was older, the risk of asbestos becoming airborne is higher.

The primary source for asbestos exposure aboard auxiliary ships was in asbestos-containing materials. Machinist mates, electrician’s mates, and even shipyard workers all worked with these materials. Any time they replaced a damaged part on a ship, it most likely launched asbestos fibers into the air. Gaskets, valves, ceiling tiles, wiring, pipes and more were manufactured with asbestos.

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Get information on:

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Help for Navy Veterans

Navy veterans make up a disproportionate number of mesothelioma patients. Because the evidence is so prevalent that asbestos was virtually everywhere aboard all Navy ships, Navy veterans often get 100% disability from the VA. The VA also has pension and compensation for spouses. Veterans eligible for VA Healthcare can also gain access to specialists.

Things to remember:

  • All auxiliary ships built prior to 1980s had asbestos.
  • Navy veterans have some of the best benefits available.
  • There are Mesothelioma Specialists in the VA.

You don’t have to figure out how to pay for treatment on your own. The VA has many benefits to help compensate you. Some veterans even get free treatment through their VA Healthcare benefits. And the VA has 2 of the best Mesothelioma Specialists in the country. Talk to one of our VA-accredited representatives to get help applying for benefits and finding the right treatment for you.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher DryfoosWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos works hard to help veterans with mesothelioma learn how to access the care they need. Using his experiences as a journalist and Boy Scout, he strives to keep our content trustworthy, helpful, and easy to read.

View Sources
  1. Safety Training Gouge. “Afloat Asbestos Control.” U.S. Navy. 2012. Accessed on December 29th, 2017. Retrieved from:
  2. U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command. Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force. Accessed on December 29th, 2017. Retrieved from:
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