Asbestos – the Darling of the 20th Century’s Shipbuilding Industry

Prior to its dangers being widely known, asbestos was a much used product in the twentieth century’s ship building industry. Because it resists heat and corrosion it seems like an ideal substance to be used to prevent many possible dangers that could arise on a ship.

Until the 1970s more than 300 different materials that contained asbestos were used in ship construction.

Over the years it became known that asbestos causes many types of illnesses. Asbestos causes a wide variety of lung ailments including lung cancer, mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos cancer.

Even though asbestos, for the most part, is no longer used in modern shipbuilding, many of the original asbestos products can still be found aboard older naval vessels. And, if there aren’t any viable alternatives, some ACMs (asbestos containing materials) are still being used when new ships are built.

Asbestos was most commonly used onboard for insulation. It covered hot water lines, hot steam pipes, and fuel lines.

Over the course of time the insulation, which was often sprayed on, became highly friable. Although preformed pipe insulation was also used, that too was susceptible to damage. And when it was damaged the asbestos within the insulation was exposed to virtually everyone onboard.

Whatever form was originally used, though, the reality is that pipe insulation was often cut off and then replaced. And, when work was done on the pipes, everyone that was in the area was exposed to asbestos dust.

Asbestos was used extensively in the engine room. It was incorporated into the cement and bricks that were used on turbines, pumps, condensers¸ and compressors. Essentially any piece of equipment that generated a lot of heat was insulated with the material.

For example, asbestos liners were sandwiched between steel and brick layers within the boilers. And the bricks themselves contained asbestos.

It was used throughout the onboard exhaust systems. Asbestos was used in shipboard manifolds, connectors, capacitors, meters, dielectric paper, rods, instruments, valves, instrument paneling, insulation felts, adhesives, and packing assemblies. The list seems almost endless.

Outside of the boiler room and the engine room many walls, ceiling panels, and floor tiles contained asbestos.

There have been estimates that any ship the size of an aircraft carrier that was built when asbestos was used extensively could contain anywhere from five hundred to one thousand tons of asbestos and/or materials that contained asbestos.

No one aboard a naval ship of that era was immune to asbestos dust exposure. And because the ventilation was poor, asbestos hazards significantly increased.