Throughout World War II and in the post-war years that followed, thousands of ships and submarines rolled off the assembly lines of American shipyards. Flame proof materials were prized during war time and in the tense cold war years that followed. Asbestos was used liberally throughout these vessels, as insulation, for fire suppression, and in common construction materials.
In addition to military vessels, cruise ships and freighters also utilized asbestos. Between 1930 and 1978, over 4.5 million men and women were employed in US shipyards. These workers were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis, as were the sailors who lived aboard them. Potential exposures continue to this day, with ship disposal taking place in countries where workers are provided few environmental protections.
Asbestosis is a serious illness caused by long-term exposure to inhalable asbestos fibers. Over time, tiny fibers become lodged in the walls surrounding the lungs, creating scar tissue, pleural thickening, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Asbestosis sufferers experience chest pain and shortness of breath, and are at an increased risk for lung cancer and other asbestos related diseases.
Cigarette smoking greatly increases this risk. Because the latency period for asbestosis stretches for many decades, cold war era shipbuilders and sailors may only now be experiencing their first symptoms.
In addition to asbestosis, maritime exposure to asbestos can cause deadly cancers, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. While asbestosis typically requires prolonged exposure, mesothelioma has been known to develop in family members of shipyard workers who carried asbestos fibers home on their clothing. If you or a loved one ever worked with or in close proximity to asbestos, exposure may have occurred.
Asbestosis can go undetected for years. If you worked in the shipbuilding industry or were a sailor during the mid to late 20th Century and are experiencing lung problems, discuss your history with your doctor. Asbestosis diagnosis should begin with a physical examination, including lung function tests. Your doctor may order a chest x-ray and CT scan, and eventually a lung biopsy or other tests to rule out cancer. Asbestosis treatment is focused on improving quality of life, often through the use of supplemental oxygen and inhalers. In some cases, lung transplant may also be considered as a last resort.
If you or a loved one is suffering from asbestosis or other asbestos-related illness, help is available. Companies and asbestos product manufacturers have been held accountable for negligently exposing ship builders, sailors and their families to toxic asbestos fibers.