Today, former shipyard workers and veterans are contracting mesothelioma because of the use of asbestos in ships.
Its ability to withstand high temperatures and corrosion made asbestos an ideal material for insulating the vessels' heat-producing components in warships.
During much of the 20th Century, especially during World War II and the early Cold War years, large quantities of asbestos went through shipyards into new ships and out of refurbished and decommissioned ships. Thousands of shipyard workers breathed the fine asbestos fibers.
In fact, based purely on fatality statistics, working in an American shipyard during World War II was almost as deadly as fighting in the war.
During World War II, 16.1 million Americans were called to arms. The combat death rate was about 18 per thousand service members. About 4.3 million Americans worked in shipyards during the war. For every thousand wartime shipyard employees, about 14 died of asbestos-related cancer, and an unknown number died of asbestosis or complications from it.A Navy medical bulletin published in 1922 listed asbestos work as a hazardous occupations and suggested that respirators be used in the workplace.
Late 1930s handbooks for Navy medical corpsmen discussed the hazards asbestos workers faced. In 1941 the Navy's chief officer for preventive medicine wrote of asbestos workers in shipyards: ``I am certain that we are not protecting the men as we should.''
The Navy was clearly aware of the problem, and at the height of the wartime shipbuilding effort in 1943, it issued a document specifying ``Minimum Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards.'' These standards regulated asbestos work in all yards that built or repaired Navy ships. They required the segregation of dust-producing jobs and special ventilation of dusty areas, and mandated that asbestos workers wear respirators and receive periodic medical examinations. The shipyards were expected to enforce those standards.
Years later, a World War II era Navy industrial health officer testified that the Navy could have built ships during the war in ways that would have minimized health risks. But the military establishment chose to ignore breaking the rules in order to maintain high production levels.
A 1984 medical survey of shipyard workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth showed that an incredible 79 percent exhibited signs of lung abnormalities consistent with asbestos exposure. X-rays given to 90 wives of shipyard workers revealed that eight, or 9 percent, showed similar abnormalities.