Asbestos at the Shipyard
Many malignant mesothelioma and asbestosis patients were exposed to asbestos in shipyards. In the 1940's, American shipyards started to use asbestos as insulation around the piping in ships. At the onset of World War II, there was a massive expansion in shipbuilding, as the American fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to 6,768 vessels in 1945. This increase also brought tremendous increases in exposure to asbestos, with more than 4 million workers charged with building and repairing this vast fleet.
Asbestos was a very good material for shipbuilding because it was available in massive quantities at a relatively low cost. It could withstand high temperatures and corrosion. Asbestos was widely used to insulate the ships' heat producing compartments. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used to wrap and line the boilers, engines and turbines in the ships carrying people and supplies overseas.
While this increase in asbestos use was occurring, the Navy became aware of reports from Europe indicating the hazards of asbestos exposure to the workers. Workers who had inhaled asbestos were dying of asbestosis and mesothelioma. Standards were set in the U.S. to protect workers from the asbestos clouds surrounding the shipyard workforce since they were exposed to these asbestos clouds 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Unfortunately, during wartime these standards were not enforced due to urgency of the ship building efforts. It took 30 years before the dangers were fully disclosed to the workers and the government took the necessary steps to protect them.
Even though the government took steps to protect these workers, the damage to their health was already done. Many experienced mesothelioma symptoms such as shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat and abdominal pain. With no known form of mesothelioma treatment available, many, if not all, of these shipyard workers diagnosed with this rare form of cancer suffered painful deaths decades after their initial exposure.
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