Mesothelioma and Navy Veterans
Although asbestos was used widely by all four branches of the military through the late-1970’s, the Navy tops the list as the highest consumer of the toxic substance. Although the Navy has demonstrably known about the risks of asbestos exposure since at least 1939, the branch continued to use it until the mid- to late-1970’s, knowingly exposing personnel to dangerous substances for several decades.
Why Did the Navy Use So Much Asbestos?
When the use of asbestos was initially popularized, its utility for naval purposes was obvious. The substance is fire- and chemical-resistant, strong, and cheap. It was an obvious choice for use as insulation, fireproofing, and building material on ships.
Before asbestos regulations were put into place, asbestos was used prolifically in the construction of ships. More than 300 asbestos-containing materials were used, including:
- Insulation on boilers
- Pipe insulation
- Pump insulation
- Valve insulation
- Hydraulic assemblies
- Bedding compounds
- Cable insulation
And hundreds more uses. In short, nearly every area and component of naval ships built before the 1980’s was laden with asbestos, with the highest concentrations in engine rooms, boiler rooms, and weapons and ammunitions rooms. However, even sleeping quarters, mess halls, and navigation rooms contained insulation and materials with unsafe levels of asbestos.
Who Was at Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure?
Although anyone who worked on or in proximity to a naval ship built between the 1930’s and 1970’s was at risk of asbestos exposure, personnel tasked with constructing and repairing naval ships were at the highest risk. Jobs with highest exposure include:
- Repair and removal of damaged asbestos materials (particularly insulation)
- Shipfitters and Pipefitters
- Carriers’ boilers and engine room maintenance
One study of mesothelioma among service members in the Royal Norwegian Army found the highest risk of mesothelioma among engine room crews, with standardized incidence ratios of 6.23.
By far the highest volume of ships being commissioned by the US Navy was during World War II—between 1940 and 1945, American shipyards launched 4,300 ships, compared with only 23 in the decade prior, employing more than 2 million Americans. During this time, some of the most productive naval shipyards included:
- Richmond Shipyards (Richmond, CA)
- Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Portsmouth, VA)
- Bethlehem Fairfield Shipyard (Baltimore, MD)
However, the US Navy contracted hundreds of shipyards in the United States and around the world to build ships in its efforts during the Great War.
How Were Sailors Exposed?
Asbestos alone is not necessarily carcinogenic. It becomes dangerous when microscopic fibers become airborne and inhaled into the lungs or ingested. Fibers then stick to the mesothelium of organs like the lungs, accumulate, and can cause inflammation and damage that over time can result in mesothelioma.
The responsibilities of navy personnel increased the risk of inhaling asbestos fibers. Construction and demolition of ships resulted in increased aerosolization of asbestos fibers from ship materials. As ships aged, asbestos materials became brittle, and could become airborne with only a minor disturbance. Poor ventilation, especially in submarines, resulted in higher concentrations of aerosolized asbestos, increasing the risk of inhalation of these particles.
Mesothelioma Among Navy Veterans
As a result of the above-outlined factors, navy veterans report much higher than average rates of mesothelioma. Fortunately, as is the case with veterans of all branches of the military, navy veterans are entitled to a variety of benefits relating to their condition. If you are a navy veteran diagnosed with mesothelioma, an attorney experienced in filing claims with the VA for mesothelioma compensation is best equipped to answer all of your questions.