The United States Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimates that more than five million Navy veterans are alive today. Unfortunately, many of these veterans were once exposed to asbestos and have a high risk of developing the cancer known as mesothelioma. In fact, about 26 percent of all mesothelioma patients are former sailors and shipyard builders who were regularly exposed to the substance before it was discontinued in the 1980s.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral known for its durability, high resistance to heat and electricity and its ability to withstand chemical wear. Although the substance was prevalent in all branches of the Armed Forces, it was put in more than 300 products used on Navy ships. In fact, the Navy used asbestos heavily in shipbuilding as insulation, for pipe coverings, gaskets, felts, meters, deck coverings, adhesives and anything that needed to withstand the heat of the engines. This includes the living quarters, which were largely unventilated.
Furthermore, the Navy used asbestos-containing materials in every new ship and shipyard built from the 1930s to the 1970s. Asbestos was used extensively with boilers, condensers, steam pumps, gaskets, valves and turbines. Any sailors who were electricians, plumbers or engineers faced a high risk of exposure when they were required to repair or apply asbestos. Additionally, Seabees and dockhands who built and maintained boats were put at extremely high risk of exposure while installing and repairing asbestos insulation.
Although it is now known that the Navy had knowledge of the dangers posed by asbestos – as stated in a medical bulletin produced in 1922 – the demand for ships outweighed the developing concerns of asbestos exposure.
As long as asbestos fibers aren't airborne, the substance doesn't pose a health risk. That is why it is safe to live and work in homes and buildings that have installed asbestos insulation. On a ship, however, pipes and mechanical parts are often exposed. Wall and ceiling panels constructed of asbestos can be easily disturbed due to cramped spaces. Additionally, a ship can rock, flex and vibrate in response to sea conditions. This puts the asbestos under stress and can kick its fibers into the air. These fibers can be very easily inhaled or swallowed. Once in the airways, they lodge themselves in the lining of the lungs where they cause cell damage and mutations. These cells divide, causing swelling and inflammation and putting painful pressure on the lungs.
There is no known cure for mesothelioma. If you are a veteran of the Navy, it is important to talk to your doctor about the possible risks of asbestos exposure you endured during your career. If you have been experiencing symptoms of a lung disease, it is important to start treatment early to give you the best possible prognosis.