From the 1930s through to the middle of the 1970s, the Navy made use of hundreds of asbestos-containing products while constructing minesweeper ships for the various wars and conflicts in which minesweepers were involved. Many sailors and workers have a high risk of developing an asbestos-related condition, including mesothelioma.
Asbestos and Minesweepers Explained
U.S. Naval minesweepers are small naval warships that were designed to counteract the effects of mines laid out at sea during war time. Minesweepers have two different functions in wartime: to clear the oceans of mines so that Navy warships and merchant ships could safely pass, and to clear a path for other Naval warships to fight in battle or launch vehicles used on amphibious warships.
Minesweepers were popularized during World War II, but they have been used in wars since then. Besides the detection and removal of enemy sea mines from the waterways and the open ocean, minesweepers also worked as patrol vessels, conducting various anti-submarine warfare maneuvers.
Minesweepers were often the first Naval vessels sent out to remove any threats before the larger ships passed to engage in warfare. They were especially used in the protection of aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers during warfare.
Minesweepers have been around for a long time. They were functional during World War I (1914-1918), World War II (1941-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam war (1955-1975) and the Cold War (1945-1991). In each of these conflicts, minesweepers were necessary to clear out mines so that other Naval vessels could more safely do their job.
During World War I, the U.S. Military began to recognize that sea mines were a danger to U.S. Naval vessels. Because of this threat, the first U.S. minesweeper was made in 1917 and was commissioned in 1918. This minesweeper, the USS Lapwing (AM 1), was named after the lapwing bird, which reminded the Navy of the way minesweepers worked.
The initial minesweepers were of the AM class, but there were other minesweeper designations made after that, including:
- Mine Countermeasures (MCM)
- Motor Minesweepers (AMS)
- Underwater Mine Locators (AMCU)
- Coastal Minesweepers (AMc)
- Harbor Minesweepers (AMb)
- Coastal Minesweepers, Old (MSC(O)
- Minesweepers, Coastal (MSC)
- Minehunter, Coastal (MCH)
- Mine Countermeasures (MCM)
- Motor Minesweepers (AMS)
- Minesweepers, Ocean (MSO)
- Minesweepers, Inshore (MSO)
- Minesweepers, Fleet, Steel Hull (MSF)
The Admirable Class (AM) minesweepers were the biggest and most notable type of minesweeper. There were 170 of these vessels; however, 33 of these were cancelled during construction.
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The Admirable Class of ships were heavily armed with machine guns, anti-submarine depth charges and other types of artillery devices. There was one minesweeper of note, called the USS Hazard of the AM-240 class, which was responsible for escorting convoys from the base in San Francisco, through the Pacific Ocean, and to Pearl Harbor before sending them out to sea again in the South Pacific. This vessel was used by the U.S. Navy prior to the invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and it helped to uncover mines and protect against submarine attacks during this time period.
Today, there is only one active minesweeper class in operation. It is called the Avenger class, which is part of the designation known as MCM ships. These ships were specially made to decrease the amount of magnetic and acoustic signatures in order to avoid the detonation of sea mines. While most ships currently made were built with hulls made of steel, the Avenger class was manufactured using a wooden hull with a coating of fiberglass so that they would be harder to detect.
Asbestos Use on Minesweepers
Asbestos was not considered to be harmful at the time that minesweepers were being used and constructed. This material was cheap and inexpensive and as a result, asbestos was used to build almost every kind of Naval ship ever made, including minesweepers.
Asbestos was also very easy to come by and lightweight, which made it perfect to use as an insulating substance on ships. Because it was extremely heat-resistant, asbestos was also used to insulate boilers and engines.
Aside from being a powerful insulating material for the hulls of the ship, asbestos was used to insulate those parts of the ship that were exposed to high heat, such as the engines and boilers. All of the steam pipes used on minesweepers were also insulated with asbestos to keep the steam from cooling off too rapidly.
Minesweepers also contained asbestos gaskets, pads made from asbestos, and asbestos-containing cement, pipe covering and cloth. It was estimated that there were more than three hundred asbestos-containing products used on minesweepers throughout the 20th century.
Unfortunately, products made from asbestos often degraded over time or became agitated when the ships vibrated as part of their daily function. These actions released asbestos into the air, where it could be inhaled or ingested. These fibers were hard to cough out because of their needle-like shape and they often remained embedded into the lining of the lungs or peritoneum (in the abdomen). If the fibers were imbedded long enough, it will inflame these areas of the body. In many cases, this inflammation led to the development of mesothelioma, a type of cancer that is only caused by asbestos exposure.
Most At-Risk Employees on Minesweepers
Naval employees at the highest risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos were those who worked in the boiler rooms or the engine rooms, where asbestos was used in gaskets, pumps and insulating materials. Even if you didn’t work in one of these areas of the ship, you were still likely to become exposed to asbestos while on the minesweepers.
Much of the pipes that carried steam or water were not covered. These pipes were insulated with asbestos so, if the pipes were disturbed or degraded, the asbestos fibers could become airborne. These pipes could be found in all other areas of the ship, including the mess hall and the sailors’ sleeping quarters.
If you worked on a minesweeper or were a part of the construction of these ships, you were likely at risk for asbestos inhalation and a secondary asbestos-caused illness, such as asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma. You can be evaluated for any of these diseases at your local VA medical center.
If you are found to have an asbestos-related illness, there are excellent VA medical centers that treat patients who have developed an asbestos-related illness. Because your asbestos exposure was service-related, your care will likely be covered under your VA medical benefits.