The impressive technological advances made by the Navy since its organization have not been without cost. The useful properties of asbestos made it a valuable commodity for manufacturers of steam engines and shipbuilders. Asbestos, however, is dangerous, and sailors were put into harm’s way before the Navy stopped using it.
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The Perils of Asbestos in the Navy
For much of the Navy’s history, asbestos was linked to the safety of almost every ship in the fleet.
From the early ironclads and steam frigates of the Civil War to the aircraft carriers built during World War II and most of the Cold War, most ships bearing the USS prefix before their names contained tons of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Asbestos was supposed to protect ships and crews from shipboard fires or explosions.
This desire to make Navy ships safe from fire and high temperatures were laudable. Unfortunately, not many people at the time were aware that asbestos was a deadly carcinogen.
Either through ignorance or as a result of deliberate deception by the asbestos industry, the Navy’s ship construction division ordered the use of ACMs in most naval construction.
Asbestos Peak Use in the Navy
The Navy’s use of asbestos and ACMs peaked between 1939 and the early 1970s. This period coincided with the fleet’s massive expansion as a result of American participation in World War II.
From 1939, the year the war began in Europe, until 1945, the U.S. built 124,000 ships of all types. Most were merchant ships needed to haul supplies and troops overseas, but many vessels were warships.
During the war, the Navy built 10 battleships, 27 aircraft carriers,110 escort carriers, 211 submarines, and 907 cruisers, destroyers, and escort vessels. All of these vessels carried combustible fuel and an assortment of munitions. As a consequence, the Bureau of Ships required the use of ACMs in almost every part of each vessel as a safety measure.
This excessive use of asbestos proved disastrous. Many of the 3,380,817 men and women who served in the Navy were exposed to dangerous minerals for long periods of time.
Thousands of civilian shipyard workers in Maine, California, Virginia, and Washington State handled ACMs while building or repairing naval vessels.
Many of these sailors and workers later developed asbestos-related illnesses and died. Every year, 3,000 new cases are diagnosed on average.
The Legacy of Asbestos Use by the U.S. Navy
As the years and decades passed, doctors noticed an increase in the number of patients afflicted with lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Most of these patients were former World War II-era sailors or shipyard workers now in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
Also, because Navy ships have service lives that range between 20-50 years, many sailors and Marines who served after World War II were also exposed to asbestos.
The Bureau of Ships and its latter-day counterparts, Naval Ship Systems Command and Naval Sea Systems Command continued purchasing and using asbestos until the late 1970s.
Since the U.S. banned most commercial use of asbestos in recent years, the Navy has carried out various cleanup programs to limit sailors’ exposure on older ships still in service. Ships’ commanders are responsible for implementing asbestos safety training.
They are also required to treat every ship launched before 1980 as though it contained friable asbestos in insulation material. The maintenance of an emergency asbestos response team is also mandatory.
Todd Shipyards Lawsuit
Todd Shipyards was one of the major suppliers of naval ships during much of the 20th Century.
In its many years of operations under the Todd brand name, the company built, repaired, or renovated hundreds of ships. Todd and its modern counterpart, Vigor Shipyards, worked on many civilian contracts. Todd also received lucrative contracts from the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and the Royal Australian Navy.
Using production techniques designed by Henry Kaiser, Todd shipyards turned out oil tankers at a rate of one ship every four-and-a-half days during World War II.
The negative effects of the shipbuilding activity resulted in a number of asbestos lawsuits against Todd Shipyards. Before Vigor purchased the company in 2010, the directors reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that 565 plaintiffs had filed 490 asbestos complaints.
The company also told the SEC that it was defending against 194 medical claims, including 10 related to asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Many former employees of Todd facilities at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Los Angeles filed claims and alleged that asbestos exposure caused their illnesses. Todd/Vigor defended their past use of asbestos in court, forcing the plaintiffs to go to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The shipbuilder lost several cases and had to pay the victims. Before Vigor took over the company, Todd Shipyards told the SEC that it had a bodily injury fund of over $3 million to cover the payouts.
Examples of Naval Shipyards and Air Stations Associated with Asbestos Use
- California Navy Shipyard
- San Diego Naval Shipyard
- Bender Shipbuilding
- Washington Navy Yard
- Pensacola Naval Air Stations
- Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
- Ingalls Shipbuilding
- Brooklyn Navy Yard
- Albina Shipyard
- Bethlehem Steel Shipyard
- Norfolk Naval Shipyard
- Houston Shipyards
- Todd Shipyards
- Pearl Harbor Naval Yard
- ADDSCO Shipyard
- Penn Shipbuilding
- Willamette Shipyard
- Newport Naval Yard
- Swan Island Shipyard
Additional Information and Legal Help
Remember to fill out our form to get your free Financial Compensation Packet, with information on experienced asbestos and mesothelioma lawyers in your area. For additional assistance, contact us at 800-793-4540.
Page Reviewed and Edited by Mesothelioma Attorney Paul Danziger
Paul Danziger grew up in Houston, Texas and earned a law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. For over 25 years years he has focused on representing mesothelioma cancer victims and others hurt by asbestos exposure. Paul and his law firm have represented thousands of people diagnosed with mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer, recovering significant compensation for injured clients. Every client is extremely important to Paul and he will take every call from clients who want to speak with him. Paul and his law firm handle mesothelioma cases throughout the United States.
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