The commercial use of asbestos and asbestos products has dropped significantly in the shipbuilding industry, falling from being commonplace a few decades ago to hardly a factor today.
Yet the threat of asbestos exposure remains real. Vigilance is still a virtue in U.S. shipyards — large and small.
Asbestos has been replaced in many instances with less toxic materials in the ships being built now. Still, it remains a serious concern in the shipyard industry especially when it comes to repairing, maintaining, and modernizing older vessels where asbestos remains abundant.
Question: What, exactly, is asbestos?
Answer: It is a naturally occurring mineral mined and utilized for more than a century. It has been coveted for its ability to resist heat and corrosion, lauded for its versatility, tensile strength and insulating properties. Unfortunately, it is toxic.
Q: How did it become so popular in the building of ships, particularly U.S. Navy ships?
A: Initially, it made all vessels safer, as it helped fireproof and strengthen them. There were more than 300 asbestos products on a typical Navy ship. It was perfect for any area of a ship where there was potential for corrosion or any part near high temperatures. It was everywhere: engine room, boiler room, insulation, encasing pipes throughout a ship and even in the sleeping quarters. It was mixed with paint and covered the ship from bow to stern. From World War II until the Vietnam War, asbestos was ubiquitous on ships.
Q: Why is it so dangerous?
A: Microscopic asbestos fibers can enter the body through inhalation or ingestion and become embedded in the respiratory or digestive systems. Slowly, they cause scarring in the lining around the lungs or the stomach, which could lead to a number of serious health issues, including asbestosis or mesothelioma cancer.
Q: What type of jobs in the shipyard industry should be concerned, and what can those workers do about it?
A: Anyone working on the demolition, repair or maintenance of an older vessel is at risk once asbestos fibers become airborne. Plumbers, welders, insulators and painters are at risk in a shipyard. Protective safety gear should be worn when working around any asbestos products. Do not get complacent; any amount of exposure is unsafe. Do not bring home the work clothes, either. It might seem like nothing initially, but being exposed could come back to haunt you and your loved ones later in life. The latency period, for example, between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma can be anywhere from 20-50 years.
Q: Who is responsible for causing the exposure?
A: The manufacturers of these products were aware of the dangers long ago, yet they continued to produce them. Military leaders mandated the use of asbestos, even though they knew it could cause problems decades later. Those who served in the Navy, and those who worked in shipyards, have been the hardest hit with asbestos-related diseases. An estimated 30 percent of all those diagnosed with mesothelioma are military veterans, and mostly from the Navy.
Q: If asbestos is so dangerous, why is it still legal?
A: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the Toxic Substances Control Act, banned most asbestos-containing products in 1989. But in 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the ban on the manufacture and distribution of asbestos products. The use has dropped in most industries, and it is restricted, but asbestos is still legal.
Q: What should you do if you think you have an asbestos-related disease as a result of exposure?
A: See your doctor as soon as possible, and be sure to tell him where you work. Ask for a chest X-Ray and a CT scan. If something shows up, request to see a specialist. If you have an asbestos-related disease, you may be eligible for compensation from the company that caused exposure.
Q: Are workplaces responsible for limiting asbestos exposure today?
A: Yes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enacted a law in 1997 that limited the presence of asbestos in the air — 0.1 fibers per cubic centimetre on any job site. Employers are required today to provide protective gear if you are working near asbestos. If you think your job site is unsafe, you should contact OSHA and file a complaint.
Q: How many people were affected by asbestos in shipyards?
A: Tons. During WWII, there were 4.5 million men and women who worked in shipyards that could have potentially exposed them to asbestos. That number dropped steadily through the years, hitting a low of about 200,000 in the '90s. However, recently, more have returned to the shipbuilding and repair industry — about 400,000 people in total. They could be at risk.
For more information on asbestos and mesothelioma awareness, visit asbestos.com