Prior to the knowledge that asbestos was toxic to use on ships, the United States Navy was required to use asbestos as part of the insulating process. This meant that thousands of sailors aboard escort carriers were exposed to asbestos and later developed asbestos-related illnesses after exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos and Escort Carriers Explained
Escort carriers made up a large part of the U.S. Navy. This was particularly true during World War II, when many battles were waged on the seas. As with all other Navy ships, escort carriers needed to be protected against fire and excessive heat in various areas of the carrier, especially in the boiler and engine rooms.
During those times, asbestos was considered to be a safe and cheap alternative to other materials. This made it a popular option for fireproofing escort carriers and protecting sailors from excessive heat while on the job. In fact, during World War II, it was mandated that asbestos be used as part of the building process of escort carriers.
Escort carriers were commonly referred to as “jeep carriers” or “baby flattops”. These are essentially scaled-back aircraft carriers that were used during the second world war. Escort carriers were designed to carry convoys and defend against enemy aircraft and submarines in the immediate area of the convoy.
Many years after these ships were built, it was discovered that asbestos was hazardous and highly toxic to those who inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers. For this reason, the Navy banned the use of asbestos in the 1970s — but not before thousands of American sailors and other escort carriers workers were exposed to the substances as part of their job.
Asbestos coated many items on escort carriers, including boilers, engines and pipes. This exposed nearly everyone on these ships to dangerous levels of asbestos and increased their risk of developing an asbestos-related disease, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, later in life.
While these escort carriers tend to be smaller, slower and less armored than aircraft carriers, they were also easier, cheaper and faster to build than aircraft carriers. This meant that almost 80 escort carriers were commissioned during World War II. This amounted to the commissioning of nearly one escort carrier every seventeen days.
Asbestos Exposure on Escort Carriers
Because no one knew of the dangers of asbestos, most escort carriers built before 1980 were built with tons of asbestos. Unfortunately, the findings that asbestos was toxic came too late for the thousands of Naval personnel and shipyard workers that came into close contact with the substance.
During this time, asbestos was the primary choice for insulation due to its high tensile strength and inexpensiveness. Because of its versatile properties, asbestos was used in many areas of the ship. Pipes containing asbestos were found in the sailors’ private quarters, mess halls, common areas and navigation rooms on escort carriers. Asbestos was particularly used to insulate the exterior of the ship, boilers, piping and engines used to power escort carriers.
More than 300 asbestos-containing products were used on escort carriers until the middle of the 1970s, when it was discovered that asbestos was a toxic substance when inhaled or ingested. Letters, ship databases, war diaries, historical documents, repair logs and memos dating back to World War II clearly document the use of asbestos on these types of ships.
Asbestos was found particularly in these parts of escort carriers:
- Boilers. Boilers are needed on every escort carrier, as they are responsible for creating the high-temperature steam needed to operate these kinds of ships. Before 1973, it was mandated that the Navy use asbestos-containing boilers made from certain manufacturing companies. Boilers were often coated with asbestos blankets, which were used to insulate the boilers. Many of these asbestos-containing insulation materials were nearly 15 percent asbestos.
Boilers also used gaskets made from asbestos to manage the heat generated by the boilers. Boilermakers who maintained the boilers on escort carriers typically had the most exposure to asbestos. However, any personnel who installed boilers or regularly maintained them were considered to have a high risk of asbestos exposure. Oftentimes, the ventilation in boiler rooms was poor and sailors usually didn’t have any respiratory protective devices. For this reason, many were exposed to high concentrations of asbestos and later developed asbestos-caused illnesses, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
- Piping. There were pipes everywhere on escort carriers. Piping was required to disperse cold water and steam to all parts of the ship. Most of these pipes were insulated with wraps made from asbestos, which kept the heat or cold from escaping from the pipes. The asbestos-containing insulation consisted of a felt wrapper that was covered by tar, which provided an outer wrapping. The felt wrapper consisted of up to 50 percent asbestos.
Pipes were also in the mess halls, sailors’ private sleeping quarters, boiler rooms, common areas and engine rooms. The asbestos covering these pipes often broke down and was friable, allowing asbestos needles to become airborne, where it was inhaled and ingested by sailors and other workers on escort carriers. Personnel responsible for repairing damaged pipes were at the highest risk of inhaling asbestos particles. Any time the pipe coatings were damaged, workers had to replace the damaged coating. This involved stripping off the old insulation and putting on new insulation — both of which contained asbestos. Eventually, many of these sailors developed an asbestos-related illness.
- Pumps. Mechanical pumps on escort carriers were used to power many different systems, including the bilge systems, cooling systems and heating systems. Those who maintained these pumps were referred to as “machinist mates”, and most of their work involved the inhalation of asbestos on a regular basis.
When the machinist mates worked on pumps, they often came into contact with insulation containing asbestos, which was used on the external surface of these pumps. There was no respiratory protective gear aboard escort carriers, causing many machinist mates to become exposed to asbestos in the cramped quarters of the ships. When the pump’s gaskets needed replaced, toxic asbestos fibers were released into the air when the workers had to use sanders, wire brushes and scrapers to remove gaskets that were stuck inside the pumps.
- Valves. Valves were commonplace on escort carriers. These devices helped control the flow of gasses and liquids within the ship’s plumbing. There were several types of valves used on escort carriers, including steam valves that operated under high pressures. These valves were often made from asbestos.
Asbestos was considered advantageous for use on escort carriers because it was inexpensive and resistant to heat and high pressures. The valves were packed with asbestos fibers and many gaskets were also made from asbestos. Those who were at the highest risk for asbestos exposure were boiler operators and pipe fitters. They were tasked with maintaining the valves and replacing any old valves. This exposed them to asbestos during the replacement process. Because the quarters were cramped, asbestos fibers were plentiful and many were inhaled or ingested by the workers, who later developed asbestos-related diseases.
If you worked on an escort carrier as part of your work in the service, it is likely that you were exposed to asbestos and are at risk for an asbestos-related disease. You can be screened for asbestos-related illnesses at any VA medical center. If you are found to have asbestos or mesothelioma, you can be treated at a specialty VA medical center that deals primarily with asbestos-related diseases. The care is almost always covered by the U.S. veteran’s administration because the exposure was usually exclusively service-related.