Asbestos and Submarines
Submarines are an essential part of the U.S. Navy and used for warfare, exploration and garrison since the early 20th century. The first submarines with combustion engines came into use in 1896, and by World War I submarines were a part of naval warfare. During World War II, submarines attacked Japanese and German subs and ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Modern submarines are nuclear powered and are still used for warfare. But, today, their primary use is for launching missiles and to gathering intelligence.
As with every other vessel constructed for the Navy from World War I through the 1970s, submarines were built with asbestos and asbestos parts. Unlike other Navy ships, submarines did not have boiler rooms or steam boilers on board. Instead, the subs of the pre-nuclear era were propelled by diesel engines. Many asbestos insulating products were used in the construction and maintenance of systems aboard these diesel subs. Asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos-containing paint were used in nuclear submarines.
Asbestos Exposure on Submarines
Those who served and worked on submarines were exposed to asbestos on a routine basis. Submarines are by definition vessels that submerge, so they must be watertight. This means for extended periods, submariners breathe re-circulated air. As submariners went about their daily operations during the long periods they spend immersed underwater, asbestos from the various parts of the ship was re-circulated throughout the sub.
Modern nuclear submarines also contained asbestos products and parts. There are two primary kinds of submarines used by the modern Navy; Ballistic submarines which transport and launch nuclear ballistic missiles, and attack submarines which gather intelligence, launch small conventional missiles and are responsible for sinking enemy ships, submarines and other water craft .
Asbestos Materials on Submarines
On an enclosed underwater ship like a submarine, the risk and potential catastrophe of fire is much greater than on surface ships, where escape is possible. For this reason, fireproofing measures on submarines were elaborate and almost always involved using asbestos.
The exhaust piping and joints on the submarine's two diesel engines typically had fireproof insulating pads made of asbestos cloth filled with a kind of long-fiber asbestos that were sewed and quilted with asbestos-laden twine. The hot and cold fluid pipes, flanges, valves and fittings used asbestos insulating felt sheathed with asbestos paper and finished with asbestos cloth.
Asbestos lagging was used to surround multiple vapor compression distilling plants on subs. For the plants to work efficiently, lagging was added to prevent minimum heat loss from the plants.
Asbestos Exposure during Submarine Maintenance
When maintenance was performed on the ventilation and plumbing systems, asbestos particles escaped into the re-circulated air systems, further contaminating air and increasing exposure to the crew. On average, submarines carry 100 men.
If any lagging got wet on a sub, it was deemed as needing to be replaced. This was a frequent occurrence on submarines. Submariners and shipyard workers were the most likely people to incur the exposure in these engineering spaces.
Shipyards where submarines of this kind were built and maintained include Mare Island Shipyard in California, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, and Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington.
Shipbuilders and repair workers in these and other facilities were exposed to asbestos throughout the process of construction and repair. Numerous submarine related shipyards. in the United States, have been designated Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after their level of asbestos exposure triggered high levels of mesothelioma cancer.
Lawsuits and Submarines
The family of former nuclear refueling supervisor and inspector Charles Scandlyn gained a settlement in 2010 against Metalclad Insulation Corporation after he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma. Scandlyn performed work on all manner of Navy submarines in the 1950s and '60s. Metalclad was responsible for supplying asbestos-containing insulation used on some submarines on which Scandlyn worked.
In the claim from Scandlyn's wife, she said he worked on the Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, John C. Calhoun, Mariano Vallejo and Kamehameha as an inspector and on the Stonewall Jackson and Daniel Boone as a machinist from 1952-84. The settlement in the case is not a matter of public record.