Asbestos on Submarines

Submarines are naval warships capable of operating underwater or on the surface for extended periods. Submariners relied on mechanical ventilation to recirculate the air inside submarines. The U.S. Navy extensively used asbestos on Navy vessels from the bow to the stern. Asbestos fibers were most concentrated in mechanical areas, such as engine rooms.

Key Takeaways
  • Navy veterans exposed to asbestos on submarines are at high risk for developing mesothelioma decades later​
  • Asbestos was commonly used in Navy ships’ components like insulation and boilers until the 1980s for its heat resistance​ 
  • Affected Navy veterans qualify for VA benefits, disability compensation, and may pursue additional legal claims​​
  • Family members of Navy veterans may risk secondary asbestos exposure from contaminated work clothing​
  • The VA provides healthcare prioritization, compensation programs, and family support for mesothelioma-affected veterans​ ​​

While sailors on surface ships experienced varying levels of asbestos exposure based on their duties, they were less protected on submarines, where the air in heavily contaminated areas was recirculated to every boat compartment. Asbestos fibers are microscopic, and millions of them could enter the air filtration system unadulterated due to their small size. Submariners exposed to asbestos have a heightened risk of mesothelioma and other deadly diseases later in life.

When Was Asbestos Used on Navy Submarines?

As noted in a state appellate court ruling, the Navy started using asbestos on watercraft as early as 1922 and continued using it well into the 1970s. According to a letter by the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations addressed to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Navy began using alternative materials in ship and submarine insulation in 1971. The Navy officially updated its specifications to exclude asbestos by late 1973. However, the Navy continued using asbestos in ships and submarines beyond this time because it had already purchased tens of thousands of pounds of the mineral.

Some ships were built without asbestos insulation in the 1970s, but the Navy did not have widespread access to asbestos-free alternative materials until 1975. The letter to the GAO indicated that the Navy intended to exhaust its asbestos stores before transitioning to other materials.

Submarines That Contained Asbestos

The United States Navy has confirmed that the below-listed submarines contained asbestos:

  • USS William H. Bates
  • USS Tunny
  • USS Parche
  • USS Cavalla
  • USS Glenard P. Lipscomb
  • USS L. Mendel Rivers
  • USS Richard B. Russell
  • USS Los Angeles
  • USS Baton Rouge
  • USS Philadelphia
  • USS Memphis
  • USS Omaha
  • USS Cincinnati
  • USS Groton
  • USS Birmingham
  • USS New York City
  • USS Indianapolis
  • USS Bremerton
  • USS Jacksonville
  • USS Dallas
  • USS La Jolla
  • USS Phoenix
  • USS Boston
  • USS Baltimore
  • USS San Francisco
  • USS Ohio
  • USS Michigan
  • Numerous unnamed submarines

This is not an exhaustive list. Any Navy submarine constructed before 1980 likely contained asbestos.

Location of Asbestos on Military Submarines

Submarines were closed environments that relied heavily on electronic systems to maintain livable conditions. Due to the close quarters and the need for oxygen storage tanks, fire protection was paramount. Like other Navy watercraft, submarines harbored asbestos in nearly every area, including:

  • Pipe lagging
  • Sound insulation
  • Sheet gaskets in high-temperature applications
  • High-temperature machinery
  • Boilers
  • Piping
  • Gasket material
  • Electrical wiring
  • Deck tiles
  • Decorative paneling
  • Packing material
  • Brake and clutch linings
  • Gaskets
  • Adhesives
  • Floor tiles
  • Arc chutes
  • Insulating materials in some overload relays

Nuclear submarines carried cruise missiles, torpedoes, ammunition, and nuclear reactors that required additional fire protection and heat insulation. Asbestos was primarily used for these purposes. Submarines had more electronic systems and electrical wiring than other Navy vessels. Waterproofing was important on all Navy ships, but especially on submarines, which were completely submerged. As such, asbestos proved to be an effective sealant. The mineral also was highly valued for its soundproofing capabilities, especially on submarines.

Asbestos was concentrated in the control center, torpedo room, reactor compartment, sonar areas, and weapon and oxygen storage areas.  Submarines also carried smaller water vehicles, which would have used asbestos in engine components.

How Asbestos Exposure Occurs on Submarines

Asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers become airborne after being disturbed. The fibers are easy to inhale and remain in the body for decades, slowly damaging the tissues and causing disease decades later.

When asbestos is undamaged and contained within another material, it is not a human health risk because the fibers cannot become airborne. Asbestos easily damaged by human touch or already released into the environment is known as friable asbestos.

Non-friable asbestos can become friable through drilling, puncturing, or normal wear. Some asbestos on submarines was friable from the beginning. Friable asbestos was found in pipe lagging, sound insulation, and sheet gaskets. Non-friable asbestos on submarines that could become friable includes asbestos in engine gaskets, brakes, clutches, deck tiles, and adhesives.

Who’s At Risk?

Anyone who served on a submarine or was involved in their construction, repair, maintenance, or demolition before 1980 was likely exposed to asbestos. This demographic includes shipbuilders, submarine maintenance and repair personnel, and submariners. All submariners had a high risk of asbestos exposure because they served in a closed environment with circulating asbestos for an extended period. However, workers who handled asbestos directly may have experienced higher exposures, including:

  • Shipyard workers
  • Electronics technicians
  • Pipefitters
  • Engine room workers
  • Brake mechanics
  • Sonar technicians
  • Welders
  • Torpedoman’s mates
  • Missile technicians
  • Fire control technicians
  • Machinist’s mates

Mesothelioma can take 50 years or longer to develop after asbestos exposure. Thus, you may still be at risk even if you haven’t been on a submarine for decades. Mesothelioma is the most serious condition that can develop from asbestos exposure, but you could also develop other serious conditions, such as asbestosis and lung cancer from asbestos exposure. These conditions may also develop decades after you were exposed.

Do Military Submarines Today Still Contain Asbestos?

The military phased out asbestos use during the 1970s. Submarines constructed after 1980 are unlikely to contain asbestos. However, constructing and commissioning a submarine is a multi-year process. Submarines commissioned in the 1980s were likely designed and built during the 1970s while the Navy was still depleting asbestos supplies. A 1980 commission date doesn’t guarantee an asbestos-free submarine.

The following submarines were commissioned in the 1980s and are still active today:

  • USS Tennessee
  • USS San Juan
  • USS Key West
  • USS Helena
  • USS Chicago
  • USS Nevada
  • USS Alaska
  • USS Alabama
  • USS Henry M. Jackson
  • USS Georgia
  • USS Florida
  • USS Michigan
  • USS Ohio

Even after the U.S. Navy officially called for an end to asbestos in its specifications, it continued using the mineral from its existing supplies and admitted it could not remove all existing asbestos on Navy ships, including submarines. The USS Michigan and USS Ohio are confirmed to have harbored asbestos even though they were commissioned after 1980.

Compensation Available for Veterans Exposed to Asbestos

If you have developed an asbestos-related illness from your service on a U.S. Navy submarine, you have multiple options for pursuing financial compensation.

VA Disability Compensation

VA disability compensation is a monthly, tax-free payout based on the degree of your disability, which the VA calls a disability rating. Navy veterans with mesothelioma, lung cancer, and severe asbestosis typically receive disability ratings of 100 percent, providing the maximum monthly payment available.

The amount you receive will vary based on your marital status and dependents. In 2024, unmarried veterans with no dependents and a 100 percent disability rating receive $3,737.85. This benefit could be as high as $4,433.39 if you have a spouse, dependent child, and two dependent parents, and is increased for each additional dependent child. The amount is adjusted annually for inflation. See our VA disability rating chart for more details.

A Mesothelioma Lawsuit

You may be eligible for additional compensation through a mesothelioma lawsuit. Although you cannot sue the military, you may be able to sue the companies that supplied asbestos to the military. You don’t have to know who these companies are yourself. A knowledgeable mesothelioma lawyer can identify the responsible companies, file your lawsuit, and litigate your case.

Asbestos Trust Fund Claims

Many asbestos suppliers filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of mounting asbestos exposure lawsuits. You cannot sue a bankrupt company. However, the courts required many bankrupt companies to establish asbestos trust funds as a condition of reorganization. You can file one or more asbestos trust fund claims directly with the funds. An experienced mesothelioma lawyer can identify the asbestos trust funds that owe you compensation and file claims on your behalf.

Contact Veterans Guide Today

If you were diagnosed with mesothelioma, Veterans Guide can connect you with experienced mesothelioma lawyers who have won hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for mesothelioma victims. Contact us today to get started.
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