Written By: Aaron Munz,
Last modified: April 5, 2021

U.S. Navy vessels built prior to 1980 were laden with asbestos. Exposure to asbestos aboard naval vessels caused many veterans to later develop mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related conditions.

The Navy used the toxic mineral because of its affordability, tensile strength and resistance to heat and chemical damage. These properties made asbestos a good insulation, fireproofing and building material. The Navy used it in nearly every part of each ship, from bow to stern.

More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were used in naval 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 contained asbestos.

Naval records from ship databases, letters, memos, repair logs, war diaries and historical documents confirm Navy vessels used asbestos in many types of equipment.

In a 2019 quantitative assessment of atomic veterans and asbestos-related diseases, Navy personnel who worked as machinist’s mates, boiler technicians, pipe fitters, fire control technicians and water tenders had the highest mesothelioma mortality rate of the 114,000 veterans in the study. The epidemiological research was published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology.

Veterans suffering from illnesses caused by military asbestos exposure are entitled to disability compensation. There are also survivor benefits for spouses when veterans die of service-related cancer.

To file a successful VA claim to receive these benefits, the claim must specify where, when and how the military asbestos exposure occurred. It’s not enough to have been in the Navy — the Department of Veterans Affairs must know exactly what asbestos materials caused the exposure.

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Navy Equipment with Asbestos

Boilers

Boilers are machines that generate high-temperature, high-pressure steam on ships. They power the ship as it moves across the water and power 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 exposed to asbestos insulation. Installation or regular maintenance on boilers released clouds of asbestos dust. The close quarters and poor ventilation increased the risk of asbestos exposure.

Pipe Insulation

A sprawling network of pipes carried steam and cold water throughout Navy ships. Asbestos insulation wrapping 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 passed through sleeping quarters and mess halls. Normal activities or repair work caused asbestos fibers to become airborne, exposing everyone in the area to toxic asbestos 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. This activity released a lot of asbestos dust.

Pumps

Asbestos materials were used in mechanical pumps that powered numerous systems on Navy vessels, including heating, cooling and bilge systems. Machinist’s mates maintained the pumps and were frequently exposed to asbestos when making repairs.

Service members came in contact with asbestos insulation on the outer surface of pumps and internal parts that contained 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 released toxic fibers when using scrapers, wire brushes and other tools to remove stubborn gaskets.

Valves

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 contained asbestos materials, including high-pressure steam valves.

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 worked 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.

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Other Items Containing Asbestos

  • Insulating materials
  • Hydraulic assemblies
  • Grinders
  • Gaskets
  • Paneling
  • Packing materials
  • Tubes
  • Adhesives
  • Deck covering materials
  • Adhesives
  • Deck covering materials
  • Cables
  • Block insulation
  • Capacitors
  • Aggregate mixtures
  • Thermal materials
  • Bedding compounds

Asbestos Remained On Ships

Fewer products containing asbestos are found in Navy ships and shipyards today. 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 worker health if proper safety guidelines aren’t followed.

Despite the Navy’s removal of many asbestos products, the toxic mineral remains on ships today. As of 2020, the Navy has more than 495 ships both in active service and the reserve fleet.

Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma

Scientific studies conducted over the past 30 years have cited the dangers of asbestos exposure. Many military veterans have developed health problems caused by asbestos exposure.

Exposure Diagram Thumbnail

How Asbestos Exposure Occurs

When unprotected workers inhale asbestos fibers, the fibers become embedded in the layer of tissue surrounding the lungs.

Over the course of several decades, asbestos causes cellular and genetic damage that can cause tumor growth and the development of mesothelioma cancer. 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 who developed related diseases have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers of asbestos products used on Navy ships.

Veterans do not sue the Navy, but rather the companies that made asbestos products. Many of these cases have been successful and have allowed those with asbestos-related diseases to recover medical expenses and lost wages.

Asbestos on Navy Ships

Asbestos contamination was not limited to one specific class of vessel. Asbestos was found in everything from destroyers to aircraft carriers.

Diagram of of asbestos exposure risk levels in U.S. navy ships
Risk Areas for Navy Asbestos Exposure

Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are warships designed to deploy and recover aircraft at sea. This allows the Navy to launch airpower worldwide without depending on land bases. The first of the Navy’s aircraft carriers were built less than a decade after the world’s first manned airplane flight in 1903.

Since World War II, aircraft carriers have remained active in the Navy. The United States has used at least one aircraft carrier in more than 80 percent of responses to international conflict.

Auxiliary Ships

Auxiliary Ships

Auxiliary ships ensure the Navy maintains a strong, well-equipped and effective naval fleet. These vessels are primarily responsible for replenishing ships with supplies and repairing damaged ships in battle.

Cruisers

Cruisers

Cruisers are large combat ships with a number of different designations, designs and roles. Armored cruisers and light cruisers primarily perform convoy duties. They escort troops, merchant ships and cargo men across the sea. Modern guided missile cruisers perform more combatant duties.

Destroyers

Destroyers

Destroyers are fast warships that originated to defend against small torpedo boats. Destroyers have evolved and are now capable of a number of offensive and defensive operations. They perform operations both independently and alongside other ships.

Minesweepers

Minesweeper ship

Minesweepers are small naval warships designed to counter the threat of sea mines. These vessels 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.

Submarines

Submarine

Submarines are an essential part of the U.S. Navy. Each ship classification was built for similar, but different roles. Some are designed for destroying enemy submarines and warships. Others are built to house long-range nuclear missiles for strategic deterrence.

Past Occupational and Safety Issues

In 1999, the Navy dealt with the particular risks of handling asbestos on retired ships 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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