Following WWII, the U.S. Navy made a concentrated effort maintain its military dominance, which included expanding its fleet and building more shipyards. At the time, asbestos was an important part of both ships and the shipyard. This building material was frequently used because it was strong, resistant to heat, relatively inexpensive and it also resisted corrosion. Ships were covered in asbestos. It was used in the paint, in the insulation, in boiler rooms, and even in packing materials. At the time, nobody understood the deadly consequences asbestos would have on the shipyard workers who handled these products every single day.
Even after the medical community realized asbestos was linked to serious health problems, shipyard workers remained at risk. Because so many ships were full of asbestos, there was no cost-effective way to remove the dangers all at once. While asbestos is no longer used in shipbuilding, it may still be present in older ships, putting shipyard workers at constant risk.
The Impact of Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos was used in practically every part of older ships. Shipyard workers could have been exposed to asbestos at any given moment. Tiny microscopic asbestos fibers lingered on every surface, a silent killer just waiting for the next unknowing victim to come along. When shipyard workers inhaled these asbestos fibers, it started a dangerous chain reaction. The fibers would embed in the lungs, where they would remain lodged for years. As the body fought the foreign invader, it created intense scarring, which led to inflammation and breathing difficulties.
Eventually, these scarred areas could evolve into cancerous lesions, causing mesothelioma.
The shipyard workers who were most likely to inhale asbestos fibers are those who worked on ships during the construction and repair phases. Risk was also high for those who routinely handled the asbestos crates and pallets when loading and unloading the ships. Although asbestos is no longer used for shipbuilding, it can still be found on some older ships that were constructed in the late 1970s.
There are three types of serious illnesses linked to asbestos exposure. Each has been found in shipyard workers. The most common asbestos related illness is mesothelioma. Many shipyard workers have developed malignant pleural mesothelioma, a life-threatening condition where tumors attack the lung’s lining. Shipyard workers are also at risk for peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer in the stomach lining, and pericardial mesothelioma, a cancer in the heart’s lining. While there’s no known cure for mesothelioma, doctors can offer treatments that extend the life of the patient, often adding five years to their overall life expectancy.
Lung cancer has also been linked to asbestos exposure. Shipyard workers that smoked may have an increased risk of developing lung cancer due to asbestos exposure.
Asbestosis is another condition commonly tied to asbestos. This disease is caused by thickening scar tissue on the lungs, leading to shortness of breath and suffocation.
It can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years for the first signs of asbestos-related illness to appear. If you believe you were exposed to asbestos as a shipyard worker, it’s important to talk to your doctor and have routine health monitoring to catch asbestos-related diseases in the early stages. This can lead to a better treatment plan and help improve your quality of life.