Where, Why and How Shipyard Asbestos Led to a Major U.S. Navy Health Crisis

Shipyard asbestos has led to a major health crisis for the U.S. Navy, with nearly one-third of all exposure-related cases of a rare cancer, called mesothelioma, being diagnosed in veterans of that military branch alone. Though malignant mesothelioma affects only around 3,000 Americans each year, the inordinately high percentage of navy vets within its relatively secluded reach raises a number of questions about the relationship between the military branch itself and the high levels of exposure to asbestos that active duty members received during the past century or so of enlistment.

The following informational article is designed to answer three very simple but equally important questions about shipyard asbestos and the consequences it has reaped amongst former members of the U.S. Navy.

Where were veterans exposed?

Veterans of the U.S. Navy were exposed to asbestos—a known toxin that is linked almost exclusively to mesothelioma, as well as other conditions like asbestosis—in virtually every shipyard and on virtually every ship belonging to or utilized by the military during the majority of the 21st century. Though exposure likely occurred even before the turn of that century, experts now pinpoint the peak of shipyard asbestos as occurring between the 1940s and 1970s—with much of the highest concentration of both usage and exposure corresponding with the years surrounding the major conflict periods between World War I and the Korean Conflict.

Because asbestos-containing products were used to build virtually every portion of navy ships during that time period, even non-combat veterans could have been heavily exposed. Cooks came into contact with asbestos in kitchens and mess halls, because it was frequently used to make insulation materials, ceiling tiles and cement or other types of flooring, just the same as those working in boiler and engine rooms worked alongside asbestos-containing instruments like gaskets and brake linings.

Why wasasbestos exposure so prevalent in Navy Shipyards?

Because asbestos, at the time of this heavy military usage, was being hailed as the ‘holy grail’ of the construction and manufacturing industries, it made sense that navy policy-makers had declared it the go-to choice of building materials for battleships. In fact, other branches of the military—including the army, coast guard and air force—had made similar decisions regarding the use of asbestos for constructing combat vehicles, as well as helicopters and jet planes. However, the navy was the only U.S. Military branch to actually mandate the use of asbestos as the required building material for any and all vessels being constructed by navy defense contractors.

How did shipyard asbestos cause mesothelioma and other illnesses?

Shipyard asbestos exposure presented the same kind of organ damage as any type of civilian exposure—through the ingestion or inhalation of the tiny fibers that actually make up asbestos products and give them their acclaimed properties of strength and heat resistance. True to once highly regarded form, those fibers are virtually indestructible, and once embedded inside the organs of their unknowing victims, impossible to remove. Over time, the unwelcome invaders cause damage that ultimately leads to tumor formation and the development of malignant cells. This process usually occurs over several decades and all while the victim is unaware and so unable to seek medical treatment until it is too late for any hope of survival—thus making mesothelioma a terminal and unequivocally tragic condition for millions of innocent veterans.