Asbestos on Battleships

Quick Summary

Asbestos was used on U.S. Navy Battleships in many different capacities. Battleships were insulated with asbestos insulation and pipes, boilers and other heavy equipment were blanketed with the substance.

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Asbestos and Battleships Explained

Battleships are a large part of the U.S. Navy and, in some cases, the armed forces. They are large, heavily armored warships containing many heavy guns for use during Naval battles at sea. These ships were created to give the Navy the protection and firepower they needed to fight battles at sea.

Battleships were especially prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, their popularity has waned recently, as few battles are waged at sea. Battleships have largely been replaced by aircraft carriers since World War II.

Click here for a FREE Navy Ships Guide containing a list of ships with asbestos.

Instead of directly fighting from ship to ship, aircraft carriers held airplanes that took off to fight battles in the air and on land. These ships had more attack power when compared to battleships. For this reason, there are no existing battleships in any of the armed forces in operation today.

Asbestos Exposure on Battleships

There were tons of asbestos on each and every battleship at sea. According to reports by the U.S. Navy, every Iowa Class Battleship had nearly 500 tons of heat insulation per ship. Almost all of this insulation contained asbestos that broke down in the damp conditions of the ship. This caused asbestos to become airborne and inhaled or ingested by sailors living and working on these battleships.

It was not only the sailors themselves that were exposed to asbestos — people who worked in shipyards making the battleships were also exposed to asbestos when replacing damaged areas of insulation or putting in new insulation. With so much asbestos aboard these types of ships, it is no doubt that every sailor on board carried a risk of airborne-asbestos.

Besides its use as an insulator of battleships, the machinery and piping was also insulated with asbestos. Every time the insulation or pipe/machinery blankets were installed or replaced, literally millions of asbestos needles became airborne where they were ingested or inhaled by sailor or shipyard workers.

Additionally, the simplest vibration of the battleship or changes in temperature were enough to dislodge asbestos particles into the air. Battleships were not well ventilated and the crew lived in close quarters, making it easy to inhale or ingest asbestos. Also, asbestos-containing piping extended throughout the battleship and it was clearly visible in the ship’s’ living quarters, hallways and mess halls that sailors came into contact with every day. Because the ventilation was so poor, the asbestos fibers had nowhere to go and the polluted air was rife with asbestos particles.

Battleships were a traveling hazard to anyone who lived, worked or built these ships. The asbestos fibers were constantly released into the air when the ship was being maintained, as well as in the everyday running of the ship. Anyone on the ship, even those who did not directly handle asbestos-containing products, were likely exposed to the toxic fibers of asbestos and carried the risk of developing some asbestos-related illness decades later.

While there are no longer battleships commissioned in today’s Navy, thousands of sailors and shipyard workers that used to live or work on these ships were exposed to the needle-like fibers of asbestos. The needles imbed into the peritoneum (the lining of the abdominal contents) or the pleura (the lining of the lungs) and often cannot be coughed out. This resulted in many workers eventually developing asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma — a deadly form of cancer that is caused only through asbestos exposure.

There were many battleships at sea during the mid-twentieth century when the U.S. was at war. Known battleships that contained asbestos as part of their insulating process are:

  • Nevada Class. The USS Oklahoma BB-37
  • New York Class. The USS New York BB-34
  • Pennsylvania class. The USS Pennsylvania BB-38
  • Pennsylvania class. The USS Arizona BB-39
  • North Carolina class. The USS North Carolina BB-55
  • North Carolina Class. The Washington BB-56
  • South Dakota Class. The USS South Dakota BB-57
  • South Dakota Class. The USS Indiana BB-58
  • South Dakota Class. The USS Massachusetts BB-59
  • South Dakota Class. The USS Alabama BB-60
  • Iowa Class. The USS Iowa BB-61
  • Iowa Class. The USS New Jersey BB-62
  • Iowa Class. The USS Missouri BB-63
  • Iowa Class. The USS Wisconsin BB-64
  • Iowa Class. The USS Illinois BB-65
  • Iowa Class. The USS Kentucky BB-66
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Battleships were once the most strategic weapons used by the U.S. Naval personnel. They were the greatest in naval seapower and contained many weapons that were used during battle. They were extremely strong ships and offered balanced offensive and balanced defensive abilities.

A battleship was built to last and withstand enemy firepower by having defensive guns to fire at opponent’s battleships and submarines. Also, because they were made from steel armor plating, they were fire resistant to any shots directed at the battleship.

Most battleships did not operate independently and were instead a part of a crew of battleships that supported each other at sea. The battleships trained and operated within the confines of a group that worked together to defeat the enemy battleships. There were often fleets of several battleships and other ships that roamed the seas and battled as a single group of ships.

Most battleships were in operation during World War II when twelve battleships were added to the existing battleships. Battleships continued to serve the U.S. Navy during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. More battleships were added by President Reagan, who ordered 600 new ships. The existing battleships were re-outfitted in the 1980s for use during wartime, although there were no wars during that period of time. There was some use of battleships during the Gulf Wars, but these ships have since been decommissioned in the 1990s and replaced by aircraft carriers.

As mentioned, many of these battleships were heavily laden with asbestos. Asbestos was lightweight and provided excellent insulating properties — both of which made asbestos the leading insulation in U.S. Naval battleships.

Areas of the battleship that were most likely to provide asbestos exposure were the boiler and engine rooms. Asbestos covered the boilers and the equipment used in the engine rooms. Any time these parts were overhauled or built, asbestos was released and became airborne, where it could have been inhaled or ingested. Many decades later, these sailors developed asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.

If you were in the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Marine Corps and suspect you may have been exposed to asbestos as a result of your service, you need to be screened on a regular basis for asbestos-related diseases and conditions.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

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