Today, many people know the risks of asbestos exposure. These fibers are highly carcinogenic, and inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to mesothelioma, asbestosis and other life-altering lung conditions.
Unfortunately, because of its widespread use, many people lived and worked in environments that contained asbestos for years before the risks of this material were fully known. Workplaces like shipyards and Naval ships were common sites of exposure. Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Kitsap Naval Base, located in Bremerton, were two such workplaces that led thousands of workers to be exposed to this dangerous substance.
The long history of Naval sites in the Bremerton area
Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Kitsap Naval Base, located in Kitsap County, are significant operations on a national scale. Kitsap Naval Base is the third largest in the country, and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard is the largest naval shipyard in the United States.
These locations also have deep roots in the community—the shipyard has been in continuous use since 1891, and the naval history of the Kitsap Naval Base began during World War II. Thousands of people work in these locations today, and many more thousands have served their country on these sites throughout their history.
Unfortunately, those deep roots in the area also mean that many workers in the area have experienced asbestos exposure on these sites during the peak years of asbestos use in Naval ships and submarines. Almost every ship and submarine produced for many decades contained asbestos, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos products passed through these worksites.
How were shipyard workers exposed to asbestos on their worksite?
Because of its resistance to heat, strength and cost, asbestos fibers were a key element of shipbuilding starting in the 1920s — in fact, the United States Navy once required its use when building ships. Hundreds of ship components could contain this substance, including:
- Hydraulic assemblies
- Pipes and tubes
- Deck covering
- Fire-resistant sheets
- Fire retardant lumber
Because of the many components that could contain asbestos, people who work with those materials could be exposed during many different tasks. Loading and unloading these components on arrival and installing components put machinists, pipefitters, boiler technicians, electricians and other tradesmen working on a shipyard in close contact with this hazardous substance.
As a result, shipyard workers have much greater likelihood of exposure to asbestos and much higher risk of serious asbestos-related diseases. In fact, according to information presented to Congress in 1980, some studies indicated that asbestos had impacted the lungs of more than half of shipyard workers.
However, construction of these ships is only one way that shipyard workers could have come into contact with asbestos fibers, even after the Navy stopped using this substance in shipbuilding. Regular repairs like work on the boilers or replacement of wiring on older ships could expose personnel. Removing ship components to replace them with new materials could also release these fibers into the air. Routine maintenance of pumps, valves, and other equipment often requires the removal and replacement of asbestos gaskets and packing.
The process of decommissioning ships can also lead to exposure. The majority of ships constructed before 1980 contained asbestos in many areas of the ship. While newly-constructed ships may be safer for those building and maintaining them, taking old ships out of service can involve dangerous exposure when dismantling the structure of the ship.
What can people do if asbestos exposure impacted their health?
Studies began to link lung disease to asbestos exposure by 1930. Unfortunately, it took decades to eliminate its use in many new ship components, and ships containing asbestos were in use in the Navy long after alternatives were in common use. As a result, shipyard employees worked in areas that contained these highly carcinogenic fibers in their daily work for decades.
Many of these workers have developed asbestosis, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. In addition to the serious physical and emotional impact that a mesothelioma diagnosis can have, workers and their families also face significant medical costs. A single hospital stay for mesothelioma patients can cost more than 24,000 dollars, and the cost of medical care over a patient’s lifetime can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While people may not develop mesothelioma until years or even decades after asbestos exposure, they may still be able to get support for their medical expenses. People suffering from mesothelioma should explore their options for lawsuits, Veterans’ Affairs claims and other support.