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US Navy Veterans Exposure to Asbestos

Literally tons of asbestos insulating materials were used on all classes of US Navy vessels–ranging from asbestos pads, felt and cloth to asbestos pipe covering and cement to asbestos gaskets and packing. Until the 1980s, a Navy ship's machinery and piping would be covered with asbestos insulation from stem to stern. The construction, maintenance, and repair of these ships exposed shipyard workers and Navy seamen to asbestos and increased their risk of mesothelioma.

US Navy Veterans who worked in shipyards and at sea remain at risk for contracting mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases because of these exposures to asbestos.

Construction: Tons of Asbestos Used In Construction of Navy Ships

During World War II, the United States Navy embarked on a ship-building program which produced thousands of ships that incorporated literally tons of asbestos insulation products. These ships served for the next four decades, exposing thousand of shipyard workers and navy seamen to asbestos. Asbestos-containing materials insulated the hot pipes and machinery found throughout these ships. Shipyard workers were exposed to the asbestos dust generated when these ships were constructed and repaired in shipyards throughout the country. Navy seamen were exposed to the asbestos materials as they operated these ships at sea.

Marine engineers estimate that up to 88% by weight of the insulating material on World War II ships contained asbestos. The quantity of asbestos on US Navy ships depended on when the ships were built and their overall size with battleships being at one extreme. The Iowa class battleships contained almost 465 tons of insulation. Other classes of WW II ships also contained tons of asbestos insulation. The Navy constructed over 175 Fletcher class destroyers, each one with almost 30 tons of asbestos thermal insulation on her pipes and machinery. The next generation of destroyers, the Gearing class, took advantage of some of the lighter weight insulating materials but still had over 24 tons of asbestos insulating materials on its 58 ships.

Overhaul and Repair: Asbestos Exposure During Regular Overhaul and Repair Work

Prior to World War II and up through the mid 1970s, asbestos insulating products were routinely disturbed during regular maintenance and repair of Navy ships. This caused asbestos dust to become airborne in significant quantities. Workers in all shipyards throughout the country used the same work practices and suffered the same type of asbestos exposure.

The majority of a Navy ship's life was spent in an operational status, as a member of and under the direction and control of various fleet, battle group and other operational entities under the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). However, in accordance with a long-range maintenance planning schedule, each ship was assigned discrete periods of maintenance, repair and overhaul, designated as CNO availabilities. Generally, ships underwent a major overhaul approximately every three to five years and also received several equally spaced selective restrictive availabilities (SRAs) within the overhaul cycle.

Prior to the mid-1980s virtually all shipyard industrial periods were accomplished by the various naval shipyards. At that time, there were approximately twelve shipyards capable of this type of work. When a ship was undergoing an industrial period, the industrial work was under the technical and organizational authority of the Bureau of Ships, known as BUSHIPS, and later as the Naval Sea Systems Command or NAVSEA. Each of the naval shipyards served under NAVSEA, which developed and promulgated overall policies and procedures for the construction, repair and maintenance of the ships themselves and for the organization and operation of the shipyards.

Shipyard Shop Workers: Worked With and Around Asbestos

Given these shared experiences of shipyard work practices, all shipyard workers and shop workers engaged in similar work practices, including the handling of asbestos products. The insulation workers at every shipyard worked alongside other tradesmen constantly. The deadly asbestos dust was around all of the workers and inhaled by them all. Sadly, what remains for all these workers is the risk of developing mesothelioma as a result of their exposure to deadly asbestos dust.

Sources: "The Navy and Asbestos Thermal Insulation," Naval Engineering Journal, Spring, 2005.
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