Asbestos on Navy Ships

Until the 1980s, asbestos on Navy ships was quite common. The Navy used over 300 asbestos products in different capacities, from insulation to fireproofing. You could find asbestos in virtually every nook and cranny of Navy vessels, posing a serious safety risk to U.S. service members exposed to the substance. Individuals exposed to asbestos may develop severe medical conditions, including mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases. Veterans Guide explains what to know about asbestos exposure in the Navy.

The U.S. Navy has thousands of ships, each maintained and operated by dedicated military service members who bravely protect and serve our country. Until the 1980s, many U.S. Navy vessels contained asbestos, an inexpensive substance known for its insulating and fireproof properties. 

However, unknown to the U.S. military at the time, asbestos is toxic. Ongoing exposure to asbestos and materials containing asbestos can cause severe illnesses, including mesothelioma and respiratory disease. Many Navy veterans were exposed to asbestos through their work and later developed life-threatening medical conditions.

Veterans suffering from illnesses caused by asbestos exposure during service can file a claim for VA disability benefits. They may also have grounds for civil lawsuits against the manufacturers and distributors of asbestos-containing products. Veteran’s Guide explains what to know about asbestos on Navy ships.

Asbestos on Navy Ships

Asbestos is an affordable mineral fiber found in rocks and soil. Its properties, including fiber strength and heat resistance, made it a key component in building materials, pipes, and gaskets. Until the 1980s, the U.S. Navy widely used asbestos throughout its vessels. Many veterans charged with maintaining the ship’s operations and equipment were exposed to the substance daily.

Some areas where asbestos was common on Navy vessels include boilers, pipe insulation, pumps, and valves. Navy ships containing significant amounts of asbestos included aircraft carriers, auxiliary ships, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and minesweepers.

Once the U.S. Navy realized the toxicity of asbestos, it began reducing its reliance on the substance and removing it from vessels. However, veterans who served in the U.S. Navy between 1930 and 1980 may still be impacted because it takes many years for symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses to develop. Veterans were often at sea for months at a time, with no way to avoid asbestos exposure. Many also had to work in closed spaces in close contact with the toxic substance.

On What Types of Navy Ships Was Asbestos Most Commonly Found?

The U.S. Navy used asbestos in virtually every type of ship in its fleet.

Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are the largest U.S. Navy ships. They act as floating runways for conducting strikes and preventing attacks on U.S. interests and allies. Their function as an air base allows them to take swift action from sea. Aircraft carriers can also provide disaster and humanitarian assistance when necessary.

Asbestos was widely used on aircraft carriers as fire-retardant insulation.

Auxiliary Ships

Auxiliary ships support combat vessels by carrying fuel, supplies, and ammunition. The U.S. Navy used asbestos throughout many auxiliary ships, especially gaskets, electrical wiring, and soundproofing.

Battleships

Battleships are large, armored vessels designed for direct combat with enemy battleships. Since they were targets for enemy fire, the U.S. Navy painted their interior with fire-retardent asbestos materials and products.

Cruisers

Cruisers are combat vessels with multiple functions, including carrying troops across the sea. Some cruisers escort merchant ships and cargo men, while others have combat features like guided missiles. The military used asbestos in a cruiser’s engine and boiler room areas.

Destroyers

Destroyers are warships known for their swift speed and firepower. The U.S. Navy used asbestos throughout destroyers, including pumps, boilers, and other equipment.

Minesweepers

Minesweepers are small vessels that detect sea mines and underwater threats to other ships. They can also clear the path for combat warships and assist in the launch of amphibious landing vessels. 

Asbestos could be found in boiler and engine rooms on minesweepers.

Naval Equipment with Asbestos

The U.S. Navy incorporated asbestos in all kinds of equipment, including building materials, piping, and paneling.

Boilers

Boilers power Navy ships as they transverse waterways. They generate high-pressure steam, which helps support various machinery on the vessels. Before the mid-1970s, the U.S. Navy coated boilers with external insulation containing asbestos and used the substance in boiler gaskets to reduce heat. Installation and regular maintenance of boilers can release asbestos clouds. Servicemembers exposed to asbestos clouds and boiler machinery inhaled the substance, increasing their risk of future respiratory disease.

Pipe Insulation

All Navy ships include many pipes that transport steam and other substances to keep the vessels running. However, pipe insulation contained asbestos wrapping to manage heat and reduce fire risk. Pipe repairs and normal activities caused asbestos fibers to be released into the air, exposing servicemembers to asbestos dust.

Pumps

Mechanical pumps distribute steam throughout Navy ships and manage their heating and cooling systems. Materials used in mechanical pumps often include asbestos insulation and other asbestos-laden parts. Service members charged with maintaining and repairing pumps often had close contact with asbestos, particularly when replacing gaskets.

Valves

Navy vessels use valves to control the delivery of gas and liquids through ship machinery. Many valves included asbestos materials for insulation due to its heat resistance. Valves contained gaskets packed with asbestos and other insulation. During repairs and disassembly, asbestos fibers were released into the air.

High-Risk Occupations in the Navy for Asbestos Exposure

Nearly every U.S. Navy servicemember deployed to sea likely came into contact with asbestos. However, certain professionals have a higher risk of developing asbestos-related diseases because they regularly worked with equipment containing asbestos.

Boilermakers

U.S. Navy boilermakers are responsible for repairing and maintaining the boilers on a vessel. Since boilers contained asbestos materials, boilermakers frequently came in contact with and breathed the substance. Boilermakers also wore protective, fire-resistant gear containing asbestos when dispatching their duties.

Machinist's Mates

Machinist mates are accountable for maintaining the ship’s engines and equipment. The engine room of pre-1980s Navy vessels included equipment with asbestos materials, including gaskets, pipes, and insulation. Many machinist’s mates spent long shifts within the engine room, increasing their risk of asbestos exposure.

Fire Control Technicians

Fire control technicians are responsible for preventing and putting out fires aboard U.S. Navy vessels. Fires release particles into the air, which increases the risk of asbestos exposure among people responsible for containing the flames. Fire control technicians also wore protective gear containing heat-resistant asbestos.

Shipyard Workers

U.S. Navy shipyard workers are responsible for building, maintaining, and preparing vessels. Their jobs required them to handle various ship components containing asbestos, including pipes, gaskets, boilers, and insulative materials. Shipyard workers were also exposed to asbestos dust during vessel demolishments and refurbishments.

Pipefitters

Servicemembers responsible for removing and installing pipes frequently came in contact with asbestos while performing their duties. Asbestos particles could spread through the air during the repair and installation process.

How Has the Navy Helped Prevent Asbestos Exposure on Navy Ships?

Beginning in the 1980s, the U.S. Navy started improving ships and reducing the reliance on asbestos. However, servicemembers who worked on Navy vessels, particularly between 1930 and 1980, are still at risk of developing mesothelioma and other respiratory illnesses.

The Navy’s Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program aims to prevent and minimize harm due to asbestos. All Navy service members enroll in the program, which regularly conducts medical evaluations on individuals exposed to asbestos during their work. They undergo physical examinations, chest X-rays, and spirometry as part of the evaluation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration uses its National Emphasis Program to institute directives to reduce risk to workers exposed to different substances, including asbestos. Organizations, including shipyards, must follow the directives that lessen the risk of asbestos exposure among their workers.

Is Asbestos Still Found on Navy Ships Today?

Yes. While the U.S. Navy reduced its reliance on asbestos during the 1980s and later decades, it is still found in various parts, machinery, and other vessel equipment when there is no other material option.

What To Do If You Were Exposed to Asbestos on a Navy Ship

If you’re a veteran suffering from mesothelioma or other respiratory illnesses stemming from asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits or compensation through a civil lawsuit. 

Contact Veterans Guide for assistance. We can answer your inquiries and help you understand the options available to you.

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