Asbestos

Asbestos in Shipyards

In the small hours of the morning of 8 September 1934, a passenger liner named the S.S. Morro Castle was returning to its home port in New York from a cruise that had taken its passengers on a vacation to Havana. Built between January 1929 and March 1930 by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, the Morro Castle was not the largest ocean liner, but certainly one of the most modern for her time. Measuring over 500 feet long with a 71-foot beam and displacing over 11,500 tons, she carried 240 officers and crewmen and could accommodate 489 passengers.

The ship was passing off the coast of New Jersey when a fire was detected just before 3 a.m. Within 30 minutes, the ship was in flames. By 10 a.m.135 of the 549 passengers and crewmen aboard were dead.

In the wake of the Morro Castle tragedy, the U.S. federal government issued more stringent regulations intended to improve maritime fire safety, including mandating the use of fire-proofing materials. In those days, this meant asbestos.

Asbestos insulation was used in virtually every part of a sea-going vessel, from the bilge to the wheelhouse to the crow's nest. Primarily, it was used in the engine room as boiler and/or fuel tank insulation and as lagging for the miles of steam pipes running throughout the vessel but was also used as electrical insulation, in the lining of fire doors and between decks.

The reasons for the extensive use of asbestos went beyond fire danger. Because asbestos is an inert substance (it does not react chemically when in contact with other elements), it was an ideal material for preventing corrosion in places where this presented a problem.

Hazards were exacerbated by the closed-in, airtight environment below decks. Although asbestos insulation and pipe lagging formed a hard shell after it was applied, within a few years this insulation could become friable - a state in which it would begin to crumble and release millions of microscopic fibers into the air.

Worker Safety

During the 1930s and during the Second World War, the U.S. Navy's fleets were increased from a few hundred vessels - mostly aging destroyers and obsolete battleships - to an armada of more than 6800 modern destroyers, cruisers, new battleships and aircraft carriers. These vessels were built at more than 100 different shipyards at seaports on all three coasts. Some of these, such as the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington and the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco, were government facilities operated by the Navy itself; most however were private companies that built ships under contract for the Navy. There were dozens of these, the major players being Todd Shipyards, Inc. and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, both of which operated shipbuilding facilities in several states.

In the mid 1980s, the late oncology researcher Dr. Irving Selikoff of Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital began an in-depth investigation into rates of asbestos disease among shipyard workers. Ultimately, his research revealed that 86 percent of all shipyard employees who had worked at their jobs for 20 years or more had developed mesothelioma or some other type of asbestos-related disease. Tragically, these risks had long been known to the asbestos industry, which did everything possible to suppress the information.

The U.S. government finally became aware of it around 1940. At first, the Roosevelt Administration was hesitant to disseminate the information for fear it could "cause disturbances in the labor element" at a time when every worker was needed for war production. Eventually, an advisory was issued to shipyard workers in 1943, advising the use of respirators and exhaust fans. However, these warnings were not taken seriously by management or labor, due largely to corporate propaganda on the part of asbestos producers - who were making a fortune on the bonanza of the war.

It would be another 30 years before the truth was finally out in the open.

Shipyard workers were not the only ones at risk. As asbestos lagging and insulation became increasingly friable on these aging vessels, those who worked aboard them either as crewmen or longshoremen were exposed to these fibers. This was also exacerbated by the fact that such work tends to be physically strenuous, ingesting asbestos fibers even more deeply into the lungs.

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