Before the dangers of asbestos were widely known, the U.S. Navy added the toxic mineral to more than 300 products commonly found aboard its ships — a decision that placed veterans at risk for mesothelioma and other serious respiratory illnesses.
Most U.S. Navy vessels built prior to 1980 were laden with asbestos, a toxic mineral responsible for placing thousands of sailors at risk for developing mesothelioma or other serious asbestos-related conditions.
The Navy aggressively pursued the use of asbestos because of its affordability, tensile strength and resistance to heat and chemical damage. These functional properties contributed to its extensive use as an insulator, as well as a fireproofing and building material in nearly every part of each ship — from bow to stern.
More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were used regularly in the constructions of these ships until the mid-1970s, when the health risks associated with asbestos became more widely known. Engine and boiler rooms, mess halls, navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and other common areas on Navy ships often contained deadly asbestos.
A collection of naval records from ship databases, letters, memos, repair logs, war diaries and historical documents confirm Navy vessels often used asbestos-containing materials in many types of equipment:
Boilers are machines that generate high-temperature, high-pressure steam on ships. They serve several key functions, including powering the ship as it moves across the water and running other important machinery.
Prior to 1973, boiler manufacturers instructed the Navy to coat boilers with external insulation containing about 15 percent asbestos. Boilers also contained loose asbestos packing and asbestos gaskets to manage heat.
Boilermakers and other service members who tended to boilers on Navy ships were often exposed to asbestos insulation. Installation or regular maintenance on boilers, which took place in close quarters with poor ventilation, often released clouds of asbestos dust.
A sprawling network of pipes carried steam and cold water throughout Navy ships. Asbestos-containing insulation wraps coated the pipes to protect them and keep the steam system running at peak efficiency.
The insulation was made of felt wrapping covered by an outer wrapping of tar. The felt layer typically contained 5 to 50 percent asbestos. The pipes, which passed through sleeping quarters and mess halls, often released asbestos into the air. Normal activities or repair work exposed anyone in the area to the toxic dust.
Any damage to the pipe coatings required service members to remove the old insulation and replace it with new wrappings. The process involved mixing dry asbestos with water to make new insulation coating, another activity that released asbestos dust.
Asbestos materials were common in mechanical pumps used to power numerous systems on Navy vessels, including heating, cooling and bilge systems. Machinist’s mates, who maintained the pumps, were frequently exposed to asbestos when making repairs.
While working on pumps, service members came in contact with asbestos insulation on the outer surface of pumps, as well as internal parts containing asbestos. Most workers did not wear protective air masks or wet down the insulation before removal to help prevent fibers from going airborne.
Machinist’s mates risked harmful exposures when replacing worn asbestos gaskets inside pumps. They frequently released toxic fibers when using scrapers, wire brushes and other tools to remove stubborn gaskets.
Valves are mechanical devices that control the flow of liquids and gasses through a ship’s plumbing. Many types of valves used in machinery on Navy ships, including high-pressure steam valves, contained asbestos materials.
The deadly mineral was perfect for insulating valves because of its resistance to heat, high pressure and chemical gasses. The valves were filled with asbestos packing and asbestos-containing gaskets. Asbestos insulation also covered the outside surface of valves.
Pipefitters, boiler operators and other Navy service members were exposed to asbestos whenever they performed maintenance work on valves. The valves required regular disassembly to replace old packing and gaskets. Disassembling the valves to remove gaskets and replace the packing released asbestos fibers into the air.
Today, fewer products containing asbestos are found in Navy ships and shipyards, but despite growing public and governmental awareness, asbestos is still permissible if no other alternative is available.
The Navy has taken action to remove existing asbestos from its ships, but as the material becomes more brittle with age, removal becomes tedious and could be more hazardous to one's health if proper mitigation safety guidelines aren't followed.
Despite the Navy's recent abatement of asbestos, much of the contaminant remains on ships today.
An analysis of historical records, Navy databases and journals from sailors and officers show the routine presence of asbestos in shipboard life. Scientific studies over the past 30 years have cited the dangers of asbestos exposure, especially in the Navy. Many military veterans are currently reporting respiratory problems caused by asbestos exposure.
When unprotected workers inhale asbestos fibers, the fibers pass through the lungs and become embedded in the pleural mesothelium, a layer of tissue surrounding the lungs.Learn more about asbestos exposure
Prolonged and persistent exposure to asbestos can be harmful to Navy veterans, especially when they breathe airborne asbestos fibers released from worn down or agitated asbestos products aboard Navy vessels. When these fibers are inhaled, they can become lodged in the lining of the lungs. Buildup of fibers over the course of several decades can case tumor growth and the development of mesothelioma cancer or other asbestos-related conditions. Patients diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the most common type of the cancer, seldom live more than two years.
Many of the sailors, officers and shipyard workers and their families affected by asbestos exposure have sought legal counsel to determine if they can receive judgments or settlements from their employers. Many of these cases have been successful and have allowed those with asbestos-related diseases to recover medical expenses and lost wages.
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Asbestos contamination was not limited to one specific class of vessel, as asbestos-containing materials could be found in the smallest patrol boats and frigates to the largest submarines, battleships and aircraft carriers. Below you will find more specific details on each class of Navy vessel and the type of asbestos confirmed on many ships.
Aircraft carriers are warships primarily designed to deploy and recover aircraft at sea. This allows the Navy to launch airpower worldwide, without depending on bases operating from the land. The first of the Navy's aircraft carriers emanated less than a decade after the world's first manned airplane flight in 1903.
Since World War II, aircraft carriers remained the Navy's main force choice. The United States has responded with at least one aircraft carrier in more than 80 percent of the nation's involvement in international conflict.Learn more about aircraft carriers
Amphibious ships are outfitted to support the Marine Corps tenets of Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) and Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM). These vessels are capable of withstanding enemy encounters at sea while transporting troops, equipment and supplies ashore. They also assist in crisis response, disaster relief and humanitarian operations.
The day of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Navy did not own one ship capable of discharging a cargo of tanks or other heavy equipment ashore without the aid of piers or cranes. Today, the United States maintains the largest and most powerful amphibious force in the world.
Auxiliary ships are imperative in ensuring the Navy maintains a strong, well-equipped and effective naval fleet. With at least 50 different designations, auxiliaries assume multiple roles. These vessels are primarily responsible for replenishing all active ships with fuel, ammunition, supplies and food, transporting troops, equipment and supplies and rescuing and repairing damaged ships in battle.
World War I era auxiliaries were mostly built as privately-owned pleasure craft, redesigned for naval use and decommissioned after the war. It wasn't until World War II that these vessels made a notable impact in the Navy's permanent fleet. Auxiliary ships remained a prominent part of the Navy through the Vietnam War era and today, there are approximately 50 active auxiliaries out of over 2,000 ever active in the Navy.Learn more about auxiliary vessels
Battleships are heavily armored, large warships equipped with multiple, heavy guns to enforce their naval dominance. These vessels were designed to provide the Navy with sheer firepower and protection. Their size ultimately was used as a military strategy to fend off its opposition.
Battleships continued to prevail as the most powerful ships to sail the sea throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, until aircraft carriers replaced them during World War II by launching aircraft with more attack power and longer ranges than that of a battleship. Today, all battleships remain inactive.
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Cruisers are large, combatant ships with a number of different designations, designs and roles. Armored cruisers and light cruisers primarily perform convoy duties, escorting troops, merchant ships and cargo men across the sea, while modern guided missile cruisers perform more combatant duties.
As battleships became obsolete toward the end of World War II, cruisers became the largest and most powerful surface combatant. Today, the United States, Peru and Russia are the only nations with active Navy cruisers.Learn more about cruisers
Destroyers are fast warships that originated to defend against small torpedo boats with the ability to quickly approach a larger ship, drop its torpedoes and escape unharmed. With initial intentions to counter these torpedo boats, destroyers have evolved and are now capable of a number of offensive and defensive operations.
By the 1890s, many navies worldwide recognized the threat destroyers possessed and began construction of their own. Modern U.S. destroyers are equipped with the most advanced technology and structural design. They perform operations independently and alongside other ships.Learn more about destroyers
Destroyer escorts are small, lightly armed warships designed for escorting merchant marine ships and supplies, transporting troops, aiding in the destruction of submarines, screening for capital ship bombardment and manning picket stations. These vessels primarily targeted submarines, as they are equipped with the most advanced equipment in antisubmarine warfare, but they also provided protection against smaller attack vessels and aircraft.
The first Navy destroyer escort was commissioned in 1944. With World War II still in progress with no sure end in sight and an increasing need for escorts, the Navy built approximately 400 more destroyer escorts for active duty in the war. Today, all destroyer escorts are inactive.
Escort carriers, commonly referred to as "baby flattops" or "jeep carriers," are scaled back versions of the powerful aircraft carriers that emerged during World War II. These vessels mainly escorted convoys, defending them against enemy submarines or other aircraft.
Although escort carriers are smaller, slower and less armored than aircraft carriers, they were also less expensive and took less time to build, allowing the Navy to commission nearly 80 of them during the Second World War, or one every 17 days, on average.
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Frigates are anti-submarine warfare combatants that seek to protect amphibious forces, merchant convoys and underway replenishment groups. These vessels are equipped for valuable short-range anti-air warfare, but they were designed as cost effective surface combatants and therefore lack the necessary multi-mission capability of other modern surface warships faced with a number of threats.
In 1794, the first six commissioned ships in the new United States Navy were known as sailing frigates, a class of ships that became the backbone of the Navy. Since then, frigates have been redesigned and commissioned from the 1960s through the 1980s, with 23 vessels still in active service.
Merchant marine ships, commonly referred as the U.S. Maritime Service ships, are civilian ships primarily designed to carry cargos in and out of U.S. ports in times of peace. During times of conflict, these vessels assume a naval position and become responsible for transporting troops and supplies for the military.
From 1937 to 1947, nearly 6,000 merchant marine ships were constructed. These vessels included tankers, hospital ships and the famous Liberty ships that carried precious ammunition and other war materials to U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines around the world. As of 2006, the merchant fleet reached 465 ships with approximately 100,000 members.
Minesweepers are small naval warships designed to counter the threat of sea mines. These vessels predominantly keep waterways clear of mines to protect other allied warships and merchant ships. They also clear paths for warships to engage in combat and safely launch amphibious landing craft, a popular World War II tactic.
In the wake of World War I, the immediate dangers of sea mines became prominent. In response, the Navy began building minesweepers to minimize the harm they caused. By 1918, the first minesweeper was commissioned. Approximately 540 vessels were commissioned after that and as of today, there are three active minesweepers in the Navy.
Patrol boats emerged after the demise of smaller, faster corvettes of an earlier era. Navy patrol boats primarily carried men and supplies along coastlines and through riverways in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Although these vessels were not equipped with heavy armor or large guns, they were built to penetrate deep into enemy territory to accomplish stealth missions.
Historically, Navy patrol boats were built with a number of different designs, each given its own designation, but all with similar duties. From destroying World War II German submarines and escorting convoy during the Vietnam War, patrol boats are imperative in providing a last line of defense.
Submarines are an essential part of the U.S. Navy. Each ship classification was built with similar, but different roles in the Navy, including destroying enemy submarines and warships and completing strategic deterrence missions and strike and special operation missions.
Experimental submarines were first built in the 1860s. By World War I, submarines were an integral part of naval warfare. During the Second World War, submarines proved their ability by destroying 55 percent of all lost enemy ships. Today, approximately 20 submarines remain in active service.Learn more about submarines
In 1999, the Navy dealt with the particular risks of handling asbestos on retired ships, a problem common to many ships from the Tacoma Dry Dock era, with the following policy on its Readiness and Care of Inactive Ships manual:
050-7.2.7 Handling and Removal of Asbestos Materials. Past naval shipbuilding programs have included extensive use of asbestos materials for shipboard installations such as thermal insulation and deck tile. Occasionally, shipboard stores and consumable supplies left on inactivated ships include asbestos materials. It is incumbent on all personnel to familiarize themselves with the hazards of asbestos materials and safety procedures as cited herein. Commanding Officers will ensure that all hands are indoctrinated in safe handling procedures for asbestos materials.
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