The link between asbestos and shipyard workers during the middle part of the 20th century has been clearly demonstrated as a direct causal relationship with the high incidence of mesothelioma and other related illnesses, among that particular occupational group. We know with certainty that asbestos is toxic to human beings, causing a variety of serious health problems and even eventual death. But prior to the 1970s, asbestos was in widespread use for many decades—only to be subsequently defined as one of the greatest occupational hazards in our history.
Connecting exposure to asbestos and shipyard workers’ high rate of asbestos-related illness is relatively easy to do, because asbestos was used in literally every ship and shipyard of the U.S. Navy between the 1930s and the 1970s. During this time period, thousands of individuals worked in very close quarters (especially those aboard the vessels) with a silently lethal substance. They were not remotely aware of the danger in their midst.
Materials made from asbestos were a popular choice for constructing military ships because of their ability to withstand considerable assault and resist both heat and fire damage. Asbestos use was so popular amongst the navy, in fact, that its use was a building mandate. Asbestos on navy ships could be found almost everywhere below deck—in boiler, navigation and engine rooms, as well as mess halls and sleeping quarters—and also in pipe coverings, brakes, gaskets and valves. It was even used in cement. Quite literally, asbestos often covered U.S. navy ships from floor to ceiling.
Asbestos from shipyard and on-board materials did not become a danger until it was somehow disturbed and caused to break into pieces. Unfortunately, this happened all too frequently and especially aboard older ships that were outfitted with aging asbestos parts. Once asbestos materials disintegrated, they would release tiny crystal fibers that could be easily swallowed or inhaled by anyone in the immediate vicinity.
Those tiny pieces of asbestos take many years—sometimes upwards of 50 or more—to cause significant enough damage that tumors form. Once they do, malignant mesothelioma is often the result.
Sadly, there is no cure for mesothelioma. The ultimate result of mixing asbestos and shipyard laborers or navy shipman has often proven fatal. Moreover, anyone living with one of these exposed individual was also at risk. A process called secondary exposure carried asbestos fibers home on the surface of the worker’s clothes and body, presenting a risk to anyone in the home and especially those handling the contaminated clothing (such as while doing laundry).
Asbestos was also used by other branches of the military—including the army, air force and marines—but not as widely as by the navy. Veterans of the navy, in particular, who worked on ships or in shipyards prior to the 1970s should be vigilant about monitoring their health and are urged to seek medical evaluation if any possible symptoms of mesothelioma are experienced.