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Where the numbers came from


Over the past couple of months these articles have been about one of the hazards our veterans have been exposed to that hasn’t been explored, recognized or treated by our government. That hazard is asbestos exposure. My last article invoked a response from a representative of the Mesothelioma Resource Center who asked me how I arrived at the number of 500,000 potentially affected veterans. He stated that the “number was staggering.” So, I went back to my abacus and reworked the numbers. 

Asbestos has been widely used onboard ships since the early 1930s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it began to be removed from ships. It was, and still is, a very effective and efficient heat insulator. Asbestos is able to resist heats up to approximately 580ºC (that is over 1075ºF for the metrically challenged) without breaking down. In the engine rooms of ships built after WWI efficient and effective insulation was a necessity with the introduction of high pressure steam turbines and oil fired boilers. Simply put almost every ship built—civilian and military—between 1930 and 1975 was insulated with asbestos. 

As WWII loomed on the horizon most nations went into a frenzy of ship building and the U.S. was one of them. One shipyard—Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine—turned out over 125 destroyers between 1939 and 1945. Each of these destroyers built at Bath had a crew of about 250 officers and men. There were no less than 15 shipyards turning out ships during WWII. At the end of WWII the U.S. Navy had over 1,500 ships of all classes (not counting landing craft or numerous other auxiliary craft—that total would exceed 4,500) in its inventory. Far and away the majority of these ships were powered by oil-fired boilers, steam turbines and insulated with asbestos.

There were over 900 destroyer sized ships of different classes and types in service as of October 1945. Those ships alone would account for over 225,000 potentially exposed veterans. Now if we look at cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers—and there were more than 145 of them—with their much larger crews, it isn’t hard to see where one could easily come up with my 500,000 number. It appears that I may have erred on the low side. The very low side since I haven’t even included the ships that were in service after WWII. Nor to the tens of thousands of sailors that were onboard them over a 30 year period. One cannot help but wonder just how many of “The Greatest Generation” died prematurely due to asbestos exposure.

The ‘super carriers’ that were built after WWII and before 1975 may have a crew of between 3,500 to 4,000 (not including any tenant aviation squadrons that may be onboard which could bring the total to 6,000) and all would have been insulated with asbestos in their engineering spaces. In addition to the engineering spaces, asbestos was probably utilized in and around the steam powered catapults that launch aircraft. That means that in addition to engineering personnel being potentially exposed to asbestos so are all of the flight deck personnel who lived and worked around these catapults. One must also remember that one only had to be near someone who was exposed to asbestos to be potentially at risk. That means the guys who did the laundry for the crew could be exposed to asbestos fibers. The guys who swept the decks were also at risk as these little fibers floated around. In short, every single soul who served onboard any naval vessel was at risk of asbestos exposure. And I don’t want to exclude the shipyard workers who installed the stuff in the first place. They were probably at a higher risk than the guys who worked in and around it years later.

The numbers are indeed ‘staggering’. To make matters worse there is still no ban on this pernicious killer. Yes, there are many state and federal regulations on the treatment and handling of asbestos but its use has yet to be banned outright. It is still in common usage in industry and manufacturing. Granted it is the best heat insulator known at this time, but there remains no known means to cure asbestosis or mesothelioma. All of the treatments I’ve seen would fall under the heading of ‘palliative’ at best. None of the medical treatments that are normally and routinely used on the various cancers works with mesothelioma. It is a crystalline mineral material that cannot be killed by radiation or chemical cocktails. It is roughly analogous to trying to kill a rock with radiation. All you end up with is a radioactive rock. It is still a rock even if it does glow in the dark.

I believe it is about time that our various governmental bodies and agencies face up to the fact they have some responsibility to make amends for this situation. I believe it is far past time for this material to be banned from use completely. The Europeans banned its use five years ago. I don’t know what they are doing to replace it but that isn’t my concern. Quite simply, we have to correct this mistake that is costing thousands of lives to end prematurely. There can be no doubt that asbestosis and mesothelioma have and are needlessly shortening lives. It is time for something to be done. Banning asbestos use would be a small first step. 

To all of you who feel that you may have been exposed to asbestos during you time in service you have a couple of choices. I’ve mentioned them before but they bear repeating. You could ask your doctor to set up an appointment to be x-rayed for signs of the damage done by asbestos exposure. Or, you could decide you really don’t want to know if you have been damaged by asbestos. Those are pretty much the choices one has. 

If you find out you have been damaged by asbestos can you be cured? Truth is probably not. If you opt not to get tested will it make it any more likely that you are okay? Again the answer is probably not. There is no cure so knowing or not will make no difference. If you have been exposed to asbestos long ago you cannot be ‘cured’. You will probably eventually die from that exposure. Personally, I haven’t decided yet if I want to know or not. I’ve lived the past few years on the philosophy that sooner or later something is going to kill me. I try to live each day as if it could be my last and still dream about a wonderful future. To quote the late, great Satchel Paige, “Never look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

On a somewhat cheerier note: I have received a notice that authorizes all military retirees a free pair of reading glasses annually. Even those retirees with TRICARE for Life, may receive one pair of free standard issue eyeglasses each year from the Naval Ophthalmic Support and Training Activity. Visit the NOSTRA website  for more information. Hey, it may not be much but I for one appreciate anything that I can still get for my service.


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Author info

Gil  Beyer Gil Beyer A 21 year Navy veteran, lived in Bonner County for over 30 years, Past Commander of the Priest River DAV Chapter and admitted news junkie.

Tagged as:

navy, asbestos, mesothelioma

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