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Written By: Camryn Keeble

Asbestos on Navy Ships

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral frequently used by the U.S. Navy during the 20th century. The mineral's resistance to heat, fire and electricity made it a valuable resource in the construction of Navy ships. Unfortunately, its widespread use also led to health hazards and long-term illnesses among Navy veterans.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent


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Important Facts About Asbestos on Navy Ships

  • Asbestos was widely used in the construction, maintenance and repair of Navy Ships for decades. The substance was often used in pipes, boilers, insulation, electrical wiring, ship decks, bulkheads, main engines, machinery, and much more.
  • Navy sailors are among the highest risk occupations for asbestos exposure. Not only did sailors work in an asbestos environment, but they often slept, ate, and lived on the ships.
  • According to one study, the U.S. Navy had the second highest number of mesothelioma occurrences out of any occupational category after shipbuilding.
  • Navy sailors, shipbuilders and anyone who worked in a Navy shipyard during the 20th century were likely exposed to asbestos and are at risk of developing an asbestos disease.

Why Asbestos Was Used on Navy Ships

Asbestos was used in various components of Navy ships, including pipes, boilers, insulation and electrical wiring. It was also used in the construction of ships themselves, such as in the bulkheads and decks. The mineral’s heat-resistant properties made it an ideal choice for insulating boilers and engine room equipment of Navy ships. Additionally, asbestos was used in the insulation of pipes, turbines, condensers, main engines, HPACs, ductwork, gaskets, valve packing and much more.

One of the primary reasons for the Navy’s widespread use of asbestos was its affordability. Asbestos was a cheap and readily available material easily sourced from various locations around the world. It was also easy to use, making it an attractive choice for shipbuilders. Because of the overuse of asbestos by the Navy and other branches, military asbestos exposure resulted in hundreds of thousands of military member’s exposure to the known carcinogen.

The Dangers of Asbestos on Navy Ships

The use of asbestos presented significant health hazards for sailors and shipyard workers. Asbestos fibers can become airborne and are easily inhaled or swallowed, leading to lung damage and various cancers. Over time, inhaling or swallowing asbestos fibers can lead to mesothelioma, an extremely rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs or abdomen.

The health hazards of asbestos were not widely recognized until the 1970s, and it was not until the 1980s when the Navy began to phase out the use of asbestos in building new ships or updating old ones. Unfortunately, many Navy veterans who served before this time were exposed to asbestos and have developed long-term illnesses as a result.

Asbestos Exposure for Navy Sailors

Navy sailors face a high risk of asbestos exposure. Sailors not only can be exposed from working on ships but also because they live on their job site. At sea, sailors spend days and nights on the ship, meaning they are in an asbestos environment for extended periods of time. Sailors might be one of the highest risk occupations because many work, eat, and sleep onboard ships even when in port.

The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a detailed explanation of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma among sailors.

Studies have been conducted of sailors involved in the maintenance, repair, and operation of seagoing vessels,” the report reads. “Most of these studies have shown an excess of asbestos‑associated diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The report highlighted numerous case studies of sailors and “seamen” with respiratory issues. There were numerous cases of mesothelioma identified.

In a study of 1445 cases of mesothelioma, marine seamen and the U.S. Navy had the second highest number of mesothelioma occurrences out of any occupational category after shipbuilding. The researchers also reported 4 of 37 (11%) marine and U.S. Navy mesothelioma patients also had asbestosis.

Shipbuilders are at the top of mesothelioma incidence rates. Navy ships and other vessels included asbestos to prevent fires and maintain durability. The people aboard these ships likewise face an asbestos risk.

Sailors aren’t thought of in the same category often, but they face the same concerns.

Chrysotile and amphibole asbestos were used extensively in ship construction for insulation, joiner bulkhead systems, pipe coverings, boilers, machinery parts, bulkhead panels, and many other uses, and asbestos‑containing ships are still in service,” the report states.

Asbestos Exposure in Navy Shipyards

Navy sailors are not the only ones at risk of asbestos exposure. Shipyards were hazardous work environments due to the volume of asbestos being used daily. Navy ships were built with tons of asbestos, and those that handled the asbestos were likely exposed to the toxic substance.

Veterans of the U.S. military make up around 33% of diagnosed cases of mesothelioma each year. Shipbuilders are near the top of the list among other occupations, mostly due to the link between the U.S. military’s reliance on asbestos.

Research conducted by the pathology departments of Georgetown University and Duke University revealed the magnitude of the link between shipbuilders and asbestos diseases. In a list of 12 occupations facing a high risk of mesothelioma, shipbuilding had the most cases (289 out of 1,445).

Navy Ships Containing Asbestos

If you are a Navy veteran, you may have been exposed to asbestos on your ship. Read more about asbestos used on various Navy ships:

Contact our VA-Accredited Claims Agent, retired LCDR Carl Jewett, to find out more information or for assistance filing your VA claim.

Sources & Author

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About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates informative content to educate mesothelioma patients and their loved ones on news, treatments and more. She also works diligently to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the effects of mesothelioma.

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