Asbestos and the U.S. Navy

Members of the U.S. Navy served on ships that they thought were safe. Unfortunately, these ships were made using tons of asbestos-containing construction materials. Asbestos may cause veterans to develop mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer, 20-50 years after they were first exposed.

Navy Asbestos Exposure

Americans who served in the U.S. Navy protected our freedom at home and on ships and at bases and ports around the world. While many brave men and women lost their lives fighting for and protecting our nation, countless other Navy veterans now face another battle: mesothelioma.

Navy Veterans Exposure Risk

Navy veterans face a very high risk of developing mesothelioma from being exposed to asbestos in ships. Asbestos was used virtually everywhere in Navy ships for much of the 20th century.

Much like the victims of asbestos exposure, the U.S. military was misled by asbestos companies about the safety of the mineral. These companies had scientific and medical knowledge that asbestos could cause health problems. However, they chose to hide this information from the public in an overarching effort to maximize profits.

The U.S. Navy was misled by asbestos companies and continued to use asbestos well into the late 1970s. In the 1980s, the government took large measures to limit the health hazards associated with asbestos. Though the Navy greatly reduced their asbestos use after this, it was too late for the thousands of Navy personnel that had already been exposed.

Because mesothelioma symptoms can take 20-50 years to appear, some individuals who served in the Navy decades ago only now being diagnosed with the disease.


Asbestos on Ships

Asbestos was once considered an ideal substance for military assets. It is fireproof, lightweight, inexpensive, and corrosion-proof. Every branch of the military used asbestos during the 20th century.

In the Navy, asbestos was considered so important that the U.S. government once mandated its use in shipbuilding. As a result, it was used extensively throughout ships built from the late 1930s on. This decision, of course, was made without knowledge of the potentially deadly consequences. The U.S. Navy fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to nearly 7,000 in 1945 due in part to asbestos.

Asbestos covered the interiors of most ships, including:

  • Aircraft carriers
  • Auxiliary vehicles
  • Battleships
  • Cargo ships
  • Cruisers
  • Destroyers
  • Submarines
  • Tankers and oilers
  • Tenders and tugs

The same properties that made asbestos good for shipbuilding also made it extremely dangerous to humans. When damaged or disturbed, asbestos breaks into tiny fibers that can be inhaled or ingested. The body cannot process asbestos, so the fibers get stuck. These fibers irritate the body for decades and eventually lead to cancer.

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Ship Parts and Places That Used Asbestos

Since asbestos naturally traps heat and sound, it was used mainly as an insulator on Navy vessels. It was often used to line, cover, or pad equipment on the ship to reduce damage from enemy gunfire.

Ship parts that used asbestos include:

  • Adhesives
  • Boilers, boiler linings, and heat shields
  • Ceiling and floor tiles
  • Deck coverings
  • Electrical coating
  • Engines
  • Gaskets and valves
  • Lagging and rope
  • Linings of steel wall plates and doors
  • Meters
  • Paint
  • Pipes
  • Pumps
  • Turbines

Outside of these parts, asbestos was also used to help protect different areas of the ship. Asbestos could be found in engine rooms, dining halls, the crew’s living quarters, and other important places. Navy barracks and family housing on the land also used asbestos to make roofing, walls, and shingles.

A sad consequence of abundance, members of the U.S. Navy had nowhere to escape from asbestos. It was virtually everywhere, and being packed in close quarters did not help. There are many stories of sailors sleeping below asbestos-covered pipes waking up to find themselves covered in asbestos dust.

Our Navy Heroes Run the Highest Risk

The sacrifices made by those who served in the Navy go beyond counting. But the unfortunate reality remains: these sacrifices were even bigger than many thought. Today, thousands of veterans continue to fight for their lives from a threat they could not prepare for.

A large number of U.S. Navy service members worked in and around asbestos without even knowing. This is because many manufacturers used asbestos in construction materials and products that were then used in the construction of U.S. Navy vessels and military bases — even though they knew the terrible risks.

Did You Know?

33% of all mesothelioma cases have been linked back to asbestos exposure in the military or military shipyards.

Navy Ratings at Risk of Exposure

The problem of asbestos exposure in the Navy was not limited to just one rating, location, or type of vessel. However, given the poor ventilation on Navy ships, a majority of those on board were likely exposed to asbestos. Some jobs aboard these vessels put sailors at an even higher risk.

Some ratings with a higher risk of asbestos exposure included:

  • Machinist’s Mate (MM): MMs operated and maintained the equipment used for ship propulsion and auxiliary. Machinery such as generators, pumps, oil purifiers, elevators, refrigeration plants, air conditioning systems, and desalination plants may have contained asbestos.
  • Boiler Technician (BT): BTs maintain and repair all mechanisms related to the steam propulsion systems. They also test inventories and supplies of water and fuel and examine whether the engines are powered from electricity, gas, or nuclear energy. Unfortunately, boilers frequently used asbestos-containing parts.
  • Engineman: Enginemen operate, service, and repair internal combustion engines used to power U.S. Navy ships. Asbestos was frequently used to maintain the engine and the area surrounding it.
  • Gas Turbine System Technician (GS): GSs operate and maintain gas turbine engines, main propulsion machinery, and control systems. This includes gears, shafting, controllable pitch propellers, auxiliary equipment, and electronic circuitry.
  • Electrician’s Mate (EM): EMs must operate and fix all of the electrical equipment onboard a Navy ship. Because asbestos does not conduct electricity, it was often used to insulate electrical wiring and to maintain other equipment.

U.S. Shipyards — Hot Zones by State

Shipbuilders, maintenance workers, and those who decommissioned ships were also at risk of exposure. Their jobs demanded that they construct, repair, and renovate ships that heavily relied on asbestos. As a result, it would be easy for them to inhale or ingest the fibers.

Unfortunately, the asbestos risk extended to the families of those workers. Asbestos fibers easily cling to cloth and other materials. As a result, asbestos fibers could have been brought home with workers on their clothes, shoes, and hair.

Next Steps for Navy Vets

If you or a family member served in the U.S. Navy during the past few decades and have experienced symptoms such as trouble breathing, a persistent cough, and fatigue, see your doctor immediately. Make sure to tell your doctor about your exposure to asbestos during your service.

If a mesothelioma diagnosis is confirmed, there are some important actions to consider. First, you could file a disability claim through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). You should also seek the counsel of a mesothelioma law firm, as filing an asbestos-related claim can be hard without legal guidance and expertise.

Fortunately, the team at Sokolove Law is ready to help you. Several of our attorneys are accredited through the VA. This means they can make sure you get all the benefits you are entitled to.

For more information about the legal services at Sokolove Law, call (855) 854-2504 or fill out our contact form.

Author:Sokolove Law Team
Sokolove Law Team

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Last modified: February 26, 2021