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Asbestos on Frigates

When frigates were first built, asbestos was thought to be a safe substance to use in various materials and insulation aboard the ship. Unfortunately, asbestos was found to be highly toxic and was removed from all Navy frigates. Thousands of Navy personnel were exposed to asbestos and suffered from asbestos-related illnesses, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. 

Asbestos and Frigates Explained

Frigates were often used during WW II to escort destroyers and assist with patrol missions and other open-ocean escort functions. These warships had tons of asbestos on each one of them, particularly in the piping, boiler rooms and engines of the frigate ships. Navigation rooms also contained a great deal of asbestos.

Even though this asbestos exposure happened many years ago, there is a long lag time from when a person becomes exposed to asbestos and the development of an asbestos-related illness. This means that those who served in the armed forces at least 50 years ago are still at risk of developing some kind of asbestos-related illness.

Frigates were primarily used as combatants against submarines. They protected replenishment groups, amphibious forces and merchant convoys on the sea. These ships were also used as warships, carrying important short-range anti-war guns. Frigates were extremely cost effective and effective ships, making them an important part of the U.S. Military.

The first frigates were commissioned in 1794, when six new frigates were added to the U.S. Navy. Since that time, frigates have undergone various changes in design during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. There are still more than twenty U.S. frigates actively a part of the U.S. Navy.

Asbestos Exposure on Frigates

Prior to the knowledge that asbestos was a toxic substance, the Navy made more than 300 asbestos-containing products to be used on frigates. They also insulated the insides of frigates and many structures within the ships with insulation containing asbestos. This put thousands of military personnel living and working on frigates at risk for exposure to asbestos and the secondary development of asbestos-related diseases.

Any frigate built before 1989 was likely built using some type of asbestos. Asbestos was actually mandated at one time to be used on all Navy ships and submarines, including frigates. Since most frigates were made prior to 1989, they likely contain large amounts of asbestos, some of which are impossible to safely remove, as they are an integral part of the ship’s design.

Asbestos was initially thought to be the ideal insulator for frigate ships. It was inexpensive, had high tensile strength and was also fire resistant. This made it a popular option to use when insulating boilers, engines, pipes and the inside of the hull. Every part of a frigate contains some component of asbestos as part of its construction.

As mentioned, more than 300 products used on frigates were made with asbestos, particularly any product made prior to the middle of the 1970s, when it was finally discovered that asbestos was a toxic substance. Asbestos was integrated into many parts of the ship, including the crews’ quarters, the piping in the mess hall, the engine rooms, the navigation rooms and the boiler rooms.

Some of the equipment that contained excessive amounts of asbestos on frigates include the following:

  • Boilers.  Boilers help power the engine and provide hot water to various parts of the ship. They also supply high pressure steam to all parts of the ship. Before 1973, the Navy bought boilers from manufacturers that used asbestos in several parts of the manufacturing process. The external insulation alone contained up to fifteen percent asbestos.

Boilers also contained asbestos-made gaskets to control the heat of the boilers. Naval personnel at the highest risk of developing an asbestos-related illness were the boilermakers and other ship workers who managed the boilers. The boiler rooms were often small areas with poor ventilation. The workers did not have respiratory protective gear back and likely inhaled asbestos dust that came off whenever the boiler was being repaired. This process unnecessarily exposed workers to asbestos dust that later imbedded in the lungs or peritoneum.

  • Pipes.  Each pipe on the frigates were wrapped in asbestos-containing insulation to keep the heat or cold within the pipes and help them work more efficiently. The insulation on pipes consisted of a felt wrapping that was as much as 50 percent asbestos. This outer shell often degraded, exposing the asbestos-containing felt lining and causing asbestos particles to become airborne.

Any time the outer wrapping or inner felt lining needed to be replaced, the workers had to remove the old insulation and put in new insulation. They often made the insulation by mixing the dry dust of asbestos with water and applying it to the piping. This resulted in heavy exposure to asbestos as it dried out. Dry asbestos is highly friable and easily becomes airborne.

  • Pumps.  Many of the mechanical pumps aboard frigates were made using asbestos-containing parts. Pumps were also insulated and packed with asbestos to protect heat from escaping. There were bilge pumps, cooling pumps and heating pumps in frigates.

Pipes were usually were maintained by Machinist mates, most of whom had heavy exposure to asbestos during their time in the service. Any time a pump needed to be repaired, the workers had to use tools to remove the damaged part. This resulted in the propulsion of asbestos fibers into the air. The workers were exposed to asbestos during this time, or any other time that they had to put a new part inside.

  • Valves.  Valves were used nearly every day aboard frigate ships. They controlled the flow of gasses and liquids in the pipes to the ship’s plumbing. There were several different types of valves used in frigates and all of them were made with asbestos.  

Many of the valves operated under high pressures and temperatures, causing them to degrade easily. The workers who replaced the valves had to remove the asbestos-containing insulation, remove the valves and replace them with new valves.  Each of these steps involved exposure to asbestos. With no personal protective gear, many Navy workers are at risk of developing an asbestos-related condition.

If you worked on a frigate, particularly in the navigation rooms, boiler rooms or engine rooms, you likely were exposed to high amounts of asbestos. You can be screened for asbestos-related diseases at any VA medical center.

If an asbestos-related disease is found, there are specialty VA medical centers throughout the country that will help prolong your life after you receive the diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

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