Asbestos was everywhere on the destroyer escorts, making it likely that servicemen inhaled asbestos dust as part of their job as sailors, even if they did not directly work with the substance.
Asbestos and Destroyer Escorts Explained
Destroyer escorts are a type of ship used mainly by the U.S. Navy. They are small, lightly armed and designed to accompany supplies and merchant marine ships. They can help in the destruction of submarines, man picket stations and screen for capital ship bombardments. They also have the capability to transport troops. These ships have the special skill of targeting submachines, as they contain the most advanced devices involved in anti-submarine warfare.
Destroyer escorts can also provide added protection against aircrafts and smaller attack vessels. The advent of the destroyer escorts began in 1944, when the first Navy destroyer escort was built and used during the latter parts of World War II. At that time, no one was aware that the war was almost over and there was an increased need for escorts. In order to meet the demand for these types of ships, the Navy commissioned the construction of more than 400 destroyer escorts to be used in the war. Destroyer escorts have since been made inactive, as the Navy no longer needs their services.
According to Naval records, letters, repair logs, historical documents, databases on ships, memos and war diaries, asbestos was used in the building of these ships and there were many materials made from asbestos on board.
Asbestos was found in these types of equipment used on destroyer escorts:
- Boilers. Boilers were an important part of Navy destroyer escorts. They are used to create high-pressure steam and high temperatures on the ships. Boilers have several different functions on Navy destroyers — they ran important machinery on the ships and helped in powering the ship on the ocean. Before 1973, boiler manufacturers told the Navy that they had to use boilers coated with external insulation. This external insulation contained approximately 15 percent asbestos.
There were also asbestos gaskets on these boilers, and many contained loose asbestos packing. As asbestos was commonplace on many of the boilers, boilermakers and other members of the service who dealt with boilers on destroyer escorts were often exposed to the substance. Boiler rooms were usually extremely small spaces with poor ventilation. During regular maintenance and insulation of boilers, clouds of asbestos dust were released into the air where they could be ingested or inhaled by the workers.
- Pipe Insulation. There were many pipes on destroyer escort ships that carried cold water and steam throughout the ship. These pipes were coated with asbestos-containing wraps that insulated the pipes and kept the steam system fully operational at all times. Pipes were insulated by felt wrappings that were then coated over with an outer wrapping made from tar. These felt wrappings contained up to 50 percent asbestos.
Because the pipes were everywhere on the ship, they could be found in the mess halls and private sleeping quarters where the sailors slept. Asbestos was often found being released in the air. Any time the pipes needed repair work, the asbestos wrapping was removed, exposing sailors and other workers to asbestos. Whenever the pipe coatings were damaged, the sailors had to remove the old insulation wrappings and replace them with new insulation wrappings. This process involved mixing water with dry asbestos, causing even more asbestos to be released into the air.
- Pumps. Asbestos materials were commonly used as part of mechanical pumps, which powered many different systems on the destroyer escorts. This included asbestos materials used in bulge systems, cooling systems and heating systems. It was the machinist’s mates who maintained these pumps and many of them were exposed to asbestos whenever a pump needed to be repaired.
Service members inhaled asbestos via the insulation that coated the pumps, particularly during repair activities. Many of these workers were unaware that asbestos was so dangerous and they didn’t wear any protective respiratory gear, nor did they wet the insulation during the removal process, which would have cut down on the inhalation of asbestos. These workers often inhaled or ingested asbestos whenever the asbestos gaskets became degraded and needed replacement. They used wire brushes and scrapers to remove difficult gaskets and, during this time, they were often exposed to asbestos in the air.
- Valves. Destroyer escorts contained many valves, which is a mechanical device that helped to control the flow of gasses and liquids throughout the destroyer escort’s pipes. There were many different types of valves used on destroyer escorts, many of which contained asbestos as part of their construction. Asbestos was considered the best choice for the insulation of valves because it was inexpensive and helped the valves withstand the high pressures and chemical gases used in pipes on the ship.
Both the gaskets and the insulation coating the valves contained asbestos, which was also covering the outside surfaces of valves. Exposure to asbestos was commonplace among boiler operators, pipe fitters and other members of the Navy who worked on valve replacement and installation of new valves. During the installation process, sailors had to disassemble the old packing material and gaskets, exposing them to asbestos through the air. The disassembling process involved removing old gaskets, replacing them with new ones, and packing them with asbestos-containing insulation. This process often released asbestos into the air.
- Other asbestos-containing products on destroyer escorts. Besides the machinery listed above, there were many other products used on destroyer escorts. This includes grinders, insulating materials, gaskets, hydraulic assemblies, deck covering materials, adhesives, tubes, packing materials, paneling, capacitors, block insulation, bedding compounds, thermal materials and aggregate mixtures.
There were more than 450 destroyer escorts made by the United States Navy. These ships were vital in the support of U.S. merchant marines, particularly during World War II. Due to policies on what these ships were to be made with, asbestos was a big part of the building of destroyer escorts.
Those who worked in high-risk areas, such as engine rooms and boiler rooms, sustained the most asbestos inhalation. Many times, this led to an asbestos-related disease, such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.
If you were stationed on a destroyer escort, you likely were exposed to asbestos. This means you are at risk for an asbestos-related illness. You may need to be screened for these types of illnesses and, if an asbestos-related disease is found, you can be treated at any VA hospital.
Although, there are specialty VA medical centers that deal almost exclusively with veterans who were exposed to asbestos as part of their work in the Navy. As the exposure was directly related to your time in the service, much or all of the care you receive will be paid for by the US Veteran’s Administration. You may also be entitled to receive benefits if you should develop an asbestos-related disease and become unable to work because of your asbestos exposure.