The role of shipbuilding and its ties to mesothelioma

A gavel and a justice scale

With thousands of miles of shoreline and immediate access to the Pacific Ocean, the maritime sector has played an important role in the state of Washington’s economy and a lifeline for decades and decades. Among the industries it supports is shipbuilding.

And through those years, thousands of people have worked in the region’s shipyards. They built passenger ships, submarines, barges, naval and civilian cargo ships and drilling platforms, most of which contain asbestos. Many of these workers, including U.S. Navy veterans, were unaware of asbestos’s dangers, and how that inhaling the dust and fibers can lead to the fatal cancer of mesothelioma.

Asbestos found in shipbuilding materials

Certain workers are more susceptible to contracting mesothelioma than others. That list includes construction workers, firefighters, machine operators, agriculture workers and shipbuilders. That latter group of workers serves throughout Washington. Of the country’s nearly 120 shipyards, roughly 25% of them are found in the state, many near Seattle.

Toiling away to build those floating vessels, workers frequently handled the fire-resistant asbestos. The mineral often was used in many parts of the vessels, including ships’ engine and boiler rooms, propulsion rooms and pump rooms.

And every moment those workers served in such roles brought risks stemming from asbestos exposure. They would not know their outcomes until decades later because that is when the mesothelioma symptoms such as chest pain, incessant coughing and shortness of breath surface.

Annually, about 2,600 new cases of mesothelioma occur in the U.S. and almost as many people die from the disease.

People who worked in Washington’s shipyards were proud of their roles in helping the state’s economy and, in the case of those at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, helping defend the country. Most of them did not know that the asbestos-containing materials they handled would shorten their lives. They did not know that the dust and fibers present when assembling or dismantling the ships would cause such harm.

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