Asbestos was considered to be the ideal choice to use in destroyers because it was cheap, flexible and thought to be non-toxic. During this time, hundreds of destroyers were made with asbestos, exposing thousands of sailors and shipbuilders to the substance.
Asbestos and Destroyers Explained
A destroyer is a type of U.S. Naval ship used to deliver torpedoes. A destroyer was used during the Chilean Civil war of 1891 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, and has been in use ever since.
This type of ship is extremely fragile and contains subsurface firepower that allows sailors to storm a larger armored ship in order to swiftly deploy their torpedoes and get away before being destroyed by enemy ships. They are one of the biggest threats in the Navy.
This ship has been part of the Navy since the middle of the 1890s. It was put into use by many different countries who used the ship as part of their armamentarium. These ships became referred to as torpedo boat destroyers. They have since evolved into modern day destroyers that continue to be a part of the U.S. military.
Destroyers were part of the U.S. Military in World War I (1914-1918), World War II (1941-1945), the Korean War (1950-1945), the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and the Cold War (1945-1991). They continue to make destroyers as a way to protect U.S. soil in any war or incident that involves U.S. safety.
Modern-day destroyers are similar to the Arleigh-Burke ship class and are known as guided missile destroyers that have sophisticated means of deploying ships. These ships are outfitted with the most recent advances in structural design and military technology. These are extremely versatile ships that contribute to many of the defensive and offensive initiatives by the U.S. Navy. They can function independently or alongside other groups of Naval ships, such as Naval strike groups, underway replenishment groups and amphibious ready groups.
Asbestos on Destroyers
Before the 1970s when it was clearly discovered that asbestos resulted in mesothelioma, the U.S. Navy used many different types of asbestos-containing products on their destroyers. It was used for insulation, piping, sheet covering for engines and boiler rooms and fireproofing.
Asbestos was used throughout practically all areas of the ship, such as pipe and floor installation, cement, adhesives, valves and gaskets.
At-Risk Military Personnel
Many asbestos-containing products were found in all areas of destroyers, such as the engine rooms, boiler rooms, service members’ private quarters and mess halls. Because it was fireproof, it was used in just about every area of the ship. Unfortunately, this means that just about anyone could have been exposed to asbestos and had the potential to develop an asbestos-causing disease.
Destroyers also had poor ventilation. This meant that asbestos, once airborne from degradation or even the vibrations of the ship, could be inhaled or ingested by the sailors. It wasn’t uncommon to have asbestos fibers floating in the air for where any sailor could come into contact with it.
Those employees most at risk for asbestos-causing disease were Navy veterans who had the job of removing asbestos insulation that had become damaged in the boiler and engine rooms. These were the same Naval employees who had to re-wrap pipes using asbestos paste. Other sailors most at risk for asbestos-causing diseases were boiler room workers, welders and Navy pipefitters on board the ships.
People who worked in the Navy as shipbuilders were also exposed to asbestos. These workers were tasked with installing asbestos and inhaled many asbestos-containing products as part of the process. Asbestos was both added to and removed from destroyers between the years of the 1930 and 1980. Many of these workers were not given proper safety equipment to defend them against asbestos inhalation. As a result, they likely inhaled large amounts of asbestos.
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Location of Asbestos Found on Destroyers
Asbestos use has been confirmed by multiple documents dating back to 1946 that indicate that this substances was used by the USS Benner, a Gearing-class destroyer that was in common use after World war II. Asbestos was used on this ship as a replacement for worn deck matting.
There were also memos from the early part of the 1940s that showed excessive asbestos use aboard nearly 50 destroyers of the AD 649 to AD 691 class. These ships were made from deck matting consisting of woven asbestos fibers. These ships also contained insulation made from amosite. Asbestos was used around water pipes that contained cold water, as well as asbestos cloth that was used on FO heaters and steam drums.
Testimony was given to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that indicated the finding of one U.S. Navy veteran who claimed that his collapsed lung was connected to his exposure to asbestos when he worked on the USS Chevalier during the Korean War. He worked as a gunner’s mate and was required to use asbestos-containing gloves while he fired guns and loaded ammunition as part of his job as a Navy sailor.
This sailor also testified to the fact that there were pipes in his living quarters that contained asbestos, which could have led to his exposure to asbestos. These pipes often got wet and were friable, sending asbestos fibers into the air as airborne particles. While the guns of the ship were being fired, the sailor noted that asbestos was shaken off the pipes to such a degree that the room looked as if it was snowing inside the room.
History of Asbestos Use
There was a report from the U.S. Naval War Board when Theodore Roosevelt was the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy. It identified the fact that Spanish torpedo boats were a threat to the Navy. Because it appeared that conflict was quickly approaching, the U.S. Congress approved the building of sixteen new destroyers that were ultimately used in the Spanish-American War. These ships were all made from asbestos.
The first destroyer was the USS Bainbridge. This ship was made in 1901 and first deployed on December 23, 1903 as the lead ship of its class. The USS Bainbridge contained five 6-pound guns, 3-inch guns and two torpedo tubes. The United States did not engage in war immediately, but after a German submarine attacked British merchants and claimed the lives of Americans, the U.S. officially declared war on Germany in April of 1917.
The U.S. engaged in approximately 250 battles against the Germans and set a precedent for American destroyers being effective as modern ships capable of anti-submarine warfare. They were responsible for the transfer of nearly two million men across the Atlantic, all of whom were exposed to asbestos.
If you were stationed on a U.S. destroyer during the 20th Century, it was likely that you became exposed to asbestos and are at risk for an asbestos-causing disease.
You can be evaluated for the possibility of an asbestos-causing disease at any VA Medical Center. There are also centers of excellence for U.S. veterans who develop mesothelioma as a result of their work as US Navy personnel.