Many products used on merchant marine ships were made from asbestos. The ships were also insulated with asbestos insulation to keep out the cold of the ocean. With this in mind, there was practically no place on the ship that realistically didn’t contain asbestos.
Asbestos and Merchant Marine Ships Explained
Merchant marine ships, also known as U.S. Maritime Service Ships, are civilian ships that were used by the Navy to carry cargo to and from the U.S. ports during peacetime. They were also used in wartime, where they were responsible for the transportation of supplies and troops for the U.S. military.
There were thousands of merchant marine ships in service from 1937 to 1947. During this time period alone, more than six thousand merchant marine ships were built and used by the U.S. Navy.
Merchant marine ships included hospital ships, tankers and liberty ships that provided ammunition and other materials to the U.S. soldiers who were fighting the war. Merchant marine ships are still in use; as of 2006, 465 merchant marine ships were functional and about 100,000 Naval personnel were working and living on these ships.
History of the Merchant Marines
The merchant marine ships were mostly used during wartime, where they would transport cargo and troops from place to place as part of a Naval convoy. During this time, the merchant marine ships operated under the auspices of the U.S. Military. However, in peacetime, they are considered civilian ships. They assist the Department of Defense (DOD) during peacetime and wartime.
Merchant marine ships provided a lot of services during World War II. Merchant marine ships transported two hundred billion pounds of material during this time, much of which was lost during battles. The death rate among those working on merchant marine ships was extremely high, as nearly one out of every 24 merchant mariners died while in the service.
Each merchant marine ship had an array of personnel who were responsible for many types of jobs on the ship. Many of these workers, including masters, captains, mates, department heads, engineers, pilots, deck officers, oilers, wipers, food handlers, cooks and firemen, worked and lived on these ships. As a result, many were exposed to asbestos as part of their job. Many of the workers on these merchant marine ships received intensive training at various military academies prior to their service on the ships, but few were aware of the dangers of asbestos during their time on the ships.
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Exposure to Asbestos on Merchant Marine Ships
People living and working on merchant marine ships faced many asbestos-related dangers, particularly during wartime. Personnel at the greatest risk of asbestos exposure were workers who worked in the engine room, the boiler room, the navigation room and those who maintained the plumbing aboard these types of ships.
Even those who didn’t work in these crucial areas of the merchant marine ships were still at risk for asbestos exposure. Those who worked in the engine and boiler rooms held the highest risk of asbestos exposure and asbestos-related cancer, or mesothelioma. This was because asbestos was used to insulate the machinery in these rooms. Back then, asbestos was not thought to be dangerous and workers did not use personal respiratory protective gear. This meant high doses of asbestos were inhaled or ingested, making for a high chance of asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.
Engineers were some of these high-risk employees. They were responsible for the installation, repair and functioning of the engines that allowed the ship to operate. They were also responsible for the installation and maintenance of pipes, pumps and boilers aboard merchant marine ships. All of these products contained asbestos that often degraded, requiring replacement. Anytime an engineer had to replace or repair a piece of equipment, they had a high risk of exposure to asbestos, as most of the equipment was either made from asbestos or insulated with asbestos.
Even those who weren’t engineers or boilermakers had a high risk for asbestos exposure. This is because there were pipes insulated with asbestos everywhere on the ship and the insulation was not always able to contain the asbestos fibers. This meant that asbestos was airborne in all parts of the ships so that all mariners, regardless of their job on the ship, were exposed to asbestos.
Those who built merchant marine ships also had a high risk of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was used in the insulation of the hulls of merchant marine ships and this insulation was installed by shipyard workers. This made shipbuilding a highly hazardous job, with a high risk of exposure to asbestos-containing products and developing an asbestos-related illness later on in life.
If you worked as a shipbuilder making merchant marine ships or were a Naval employee working and living on merchant marine ships, it is highly likely that you were exposed to asbestos. You can be screened for an asbestos-related condition at any VA medical center. If you are found to have an asbestos-related illness, you can be treated at a specialty VA medical center who handles mesothelioma cases and patients with asbestosis.
If you sustained your asbestos-related disease as part of your military service, the disease is covered under your veteran’s administration benefits. If you were a civilian working for the military on a merchant marine ship, there may be compensation for your asbestos-related illness as the military was likely responsible for your illness.