Asbestos Uses: The Shipyard Connection
Many malignant mesothelioma and asbestosis patients were exposed to asbestos in shipyards. In the 1940s, American shipyards began using asbestos as insulation around piping in ships. World War II brought a massive expansion in shipbuilding, as the American fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to 6,768 vessels in 1945 a 17-fold increase in six years. This increase also brought about a tremendous increase in asbestos exposure, with more than 4 million workers engaged to build and repair this vast fleet.
Asbestos was a very good material for shipbuilding because it was available in massive quantities at a relatively low cost. Because it could withstand high temperatures and corrosion, it was widely used to insulate the ships’ heat-producing components. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used to wrap and line the boilers, engines, turbines and other components in the ships carrying men and supplies overseas.
While this upsurge in asbestos use was occurring, the Navy became aware of reports from Europe indicating the dangers of asbestos exposure to workers. Workers who had inhaled asbestos were dying of asbestosis and mesothelioma (although at the time mesothelioma had not been designated as a separate disease). Regulations were therefore passed in the U.S. to protect workers from the asbestos clouds that surrounded the shipyard workforce.
Nonetheless, the workforce was exposed to these asbestos clouds 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unfortunately, it was wartime, and the standards established were not enforced due to the urgency of the ship-building efforts. It would take 30 years before the dangers of asbestos exposure were fully disclosed to workers, and the government took the necessary steps to protect them.
[Page updated August 2009]