Asbestos in the Navy: Scholarship Winner Explores Harmful Legacy


DeLon Henderson is majoring in multimedia film and production at Georgia Southern University. He is the second-place winner of the Fall 2021 scholarship.

The United States of America has the most powerful military in the world. Our troops bravely serve every day to protect our rights, our freedoms and our country. Unfortunately, members of the U.S. Navy were indirectly harmed for most of the past century due to the Navy’s use of asbestos.

This heat-resistant mineral was used in fabric and insulating materials on Navy ships and in shipyards. Unfortunately, asbestos is toxic and exposure to it can cause mesothelioma, an incurable cancer.

Mesothelioma tumors form in the tissues that line significant organs such as the lungs, heart and abdomen. These tumors can cause breathing trouble, chest or abdominal pain, fatigue and more.

Mesothelioma cancer life expectancy is 12 to 21 months from diagnosis for most people. The five-year survival rate is about 12%. There are treatments for mesothelioma, but no cure.

History of Asbestos in the Navy

America’s finest men and women who served in the United States Navy prior to 1980 may be living with a terrible disease today because of the massive use of asbestos on naval ships.

Before 1980, U.S. Navy vessels were filled to the brim with asbestos. The military used the toxic mineral because it was cheap, strong and resistant to heat and chemicals. These attributes made asbestos excellent for fireproofing and building durable products that would hold up against the natural rate of decomposition. Asbestos was used from bow to stern throughout Navy vessels.

More than 300 asbestos-containing products were used in the construction of naval ships. Letters, logs, memos and other documents detailed the various equipment on the ships that contained asbestos. It has been used in engine rooms, boiler rooms, mess halls, sleeping quarters and many other areas. These historical documents were released to the public in the late 1970s.

Banning Asbestos Could Save Lives

By 1980, as information about the dangers of asbestos became widespread, precautions were taken to avoid its use on Navy ships. However, for the sailors before that time, the damage was already done. Many found themselves diagnosed with mesothelioma later in life and burdened with this incurable cancer. 

In 2019, an assessment was conducted on veterans and asbestos-related conditions. Sailors who were machinists and technicians working near boilers, pipes and doing fire control were found to have the highest mesothelioma mortality rate out of 114,000 surveyed veterans.

Recognizing the hazards of asbestos sounds like an improvement to the situation, but it hasn’t been fully remedied yet. While the Navy took efforts to make sure fewer products containing asbestos were used in Navy ships, asbestos is still allowed today if there is no alternative.

Action needs to be taken to ban asbestos completely. Asbestos exposure is continuing to harm our fine military members who are ensuring our safety. We can’t allow this horrid disease to affect our sailors any longer. 

Emerging Treatments Help Patients

Treatments for mesothelioma involve a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and surgery. These treatments can help provide an improved quality of life.

An anti-cancer therapy called Tumor Treating Fields uses polarized electrical fields to disrupt the mesothelioma cells and stunt their growth. It’s administered through the skin via heated pads. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

A drug called bevacizumab (Avastin) is also ASCO-recommended and uses antibodies to limit the growth of tumors. An immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda) is FDA-approved and helps the immune system identify and attack cancer cells. 

While treatments do the most they can to limit growth, reduce pain and prevent or remove fluid buildup around the areas where there are tumors, there is no cure for mesothelioma. The treatments can only do so much to ease pain and extend people’s lives. 

We need to raise awareness of this deadly form of cancer. This information must be spread to help fund mesothelioma research and aid in the search for a cure.