7 Min Read
Last Updated: 05/13/2024
Fact Checked

Written by Michelle Whitmer | Edited By Walter Pacheco

Quick Facts About Merchant Marines and Asbestos Exposure
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How Are Merchant Mariners Exposed to Asbestos?

Merchant Marine vessels were constructed with asbestos-containing materials to prevent fires up until the late 1970s. Mariners were exposed to asbestos products during normal operation and maintenance of Merchant Marine vessels.

During World War II, the Merchant Marine fleet was mainly made up of mass-produced transports nicknamed Liberty ships. As in the Navy, the construction and repair of Merchant Marine ships relied heavily on asbestos-containing products.

In 1939, the Navy surgeon general issued a warning about the health effects of asbestos exposure, but unfortunately, it was ignored. During the war and afterward — when many of the Liberty ships went on to have long careers in commerce — asbestos was an inescapable part of the maritime environment.

This has led to elevated rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases among Navy veterans and former merchant mariners. Members of the Merchant Marine have not received as much gratitude or support as veterans of the military. Even though merchant mariners faced the same dangers as Navy sailors — from torpedo and kamikaze attacks, to the long-term risks of asbestos exposure.

Today, the use of asbestos is restricted on Merchant Marine ships to limit these risks. But older vessels may still contain asbestos materials.

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Asbestos Products Associated with Merchant Marine Service

Asbestos products were located throughout ships to prevent fires. It was found as insulation in engine rooms and in various equipment parts including gaskets and brake linings.

Common asbestos products on liberty ships:

  • Asbestos Cement: Asbestos cement was used as a form of insulation in engine rooms and was also used as a form of repair putty or caulk to make repairs throughout Merchant Marine vessels.
  • Boiler and Steam-Pipe Insulation: Asbestos wrap insulation was fitted around boilers and pipes, and over time this material became brittle and friable, meaning easily crumbled by light touch. Simply bumping into the material could release asbestos fibers.
  • Gaskets and Packing for Valves, Pipe Fixtures and Boilers: Installation, maintenance and repair of asbestos gaskets and packing caused asbestos fibers to release from these materials. Gaskets and packing were often dry cut by hand. This caused asbestos exposure among those directly performing the work in addition to anyone else working nearby.
  • Brake Linings in Winches: Installation and repair of asbestos brake linings generated a lot of asbestos dust, especially when the linings required sanding or cutting.
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Manufacturers Who Made Products Mariners Use

Most of the available historical information about asbestos products in the Merchant Marine focuses on boilers because they were such a common source of asbestos exposure. All merchant mariners have the option to seek legal compensation if they develop mesothelioma because of a company’s negligence.

Manufacturers of products merchant mariners used include:

  • Babcock & Wilcox: This company made asbestos-containing marine boilers for the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy. According to the company’s website, it made 1,000 boilers for the Merchant Marine.
  • Cleaver-Brooks: Cleaver-Brooks manufactured asbestos-containing boilers for the U.S. armed forces, including the Navy and the Merchant Marine.
  • Foster Wheeler: This company supplied asbestos-containing marine boilers and boiler parts to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Merchant Marine. In World War II, for example, Foster Wheeler supplied them with boilers and related equipment for battleships, Liberty ships and destroyers.
  • Kewanee Boiler Company: Kewanee made marine boilers for the U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Navy.
  • ON Marine Services: This company made asbestos-containing refractory products that were used by the U.S. Merchant Marine and the U.S. Navy.

Merchant Mariners and Mesothelioma

Scientific research has shown merchant mariners suffer higher rates of asbestos-related diseases than the general population. According to a 2022 report by the European Commission, over 70,000 workers died in 2019 from past exposure to asbestos.

  • In a 2016 study published in Inhalation Toxicology, researchers reviewed decades’ worth of scientific studies, data and government documents to assess the historical knowledge and health risks asbestos posed to merchant mariners. They reported that “background concentrations of asbestos on operating merchant ships were relatively low, but that some repair and maintenance tasks resulted in higher concentrations for short durations.”
  • In 1990, the British Journal of Industrial Medicine published a study analyzing chest X-rays from 3,324 U.S. merchant mariners. Almost one-third of the X-rays revealed abnormalities in or around the lungs. For merchant mariners exposed to asbestos more than 40 years prior, the statistic rose to 38.5%. The worst effects were observed in mariners who worked in engine rooms, where they often used asbestos cement and insulation to make repairs. Chest X-ray abnormalities were found in 42.5% of mariners in this group and almost half of those exposed more than 30 years prior.

Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that is primarily caused by asbestos exposure. Exposure to asbestos also causes lung cancer, ovarian cancer, laryngeal cancer and asbestosis, the latter of which is a progressive pulmonary disease.  If you’ve been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, it is important to find a doctor specializing in your diagnosis. Treatments are available to help people live longer with these conditions.

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Legal Options for Merchant Mariners Exposed to Asbestos

Those who served in the Merchant Marine may be eligible for multiple types of mesothelioma compensation including Veterans Benefits and legal options such as lawsuits and trust fund claims.

VA Benefits for WWII Merchant Mariners

Even when the military takes control of the Merchant Marine, merchant mariners are still technically civilians. They work for private companies that have contracts with the government. Because of this, merchant mariners are not entitled to benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. WWII-era merchant mariners are the exception. After many appeals to the Civilian Military Service Review Board, this group was finally granted veteran status in 1988. They can apply for benefits including disability compensation.

Filing a Claim Against Negligent Companies

While merchant mariners who served outside of World War II do not qualify for Veterans Benefits, they may still be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit and file a trust fund claim. Asbestos lawsuits are not filed against the Navy or the Merchant Marine. Rather, lawsuits target the companies that supplied the asbestos-containing products used on the ships.

  • On December 8, 2020, an asbestos lung cancer lawsuit involving a merchant mariner was allowed to proceed based upon expert testimony that the mariner would not have developed lung cancer if not for the asbestos exposure he endured throughout his 27 years employed as a merchant marine. The outcome of the case is unpublished.
  • On November 23, 2020, a Pennsylvania federal bankruptcy judge approved the creation of an asbestos trust fund for ON Marine Services Company with nearly $31 million in insurance settlement proceeds. The company had about 6,000 asbestos claims pending when it filed for bankruptcy in January 2020. More than 182,000 asbestos lawsuits have been filed against ON Marine Services since 1983.
  • In 2004, the John Crane Company had to pay $22 million to Bernard Mayer and the widow of Noah Pride. John Crane sold asbestos products that carried no warnings about the danger of asbestos exposure. Mayer was exposed to asbestos through these products while working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, and Pride was exposed during his careers in the Navy and the Merchant Marine. Both men went on to develop mesothelioma after retirement. John Crane tried to have the verdict overturned, but it was ultimately upheld by the New York Supreme Court.

Successful lawsuits depend on the expertise of experienced mesothelioma lawyers. If you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is important to work with a mesothelioma law firm with a great success rate securing compensation.

If you’ve lost a loved one to mesothelioma, you may be eligible to file a wrongful death lawsuit to seek compensation for medical bills, lost wages and funeral expenses.

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