Asbestos on Board

File photo: Workers clean the interior of a cargo hold aboard the LST-1166. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Pacific Strike Team)

By Shannon Connor

What happens when a solution to one or many obstacles
ends up becoming an even larger problem? For seamen, one such
problem is asbestos.

Asbestos is a natural fiber that was mined for use in
construction and household products. It became rapidly popular
after others realized it has fire-resistant properties and
durability. However, in the 1960s, researchers began to link
exposure to this material with cancer, specifically mesothelioma,
which can form in the lungs, abdomen or heart.

There are six types of asbestos, each with their own purpose and
place of origin:

  • Chrysotile (White) - Is the most common form; often used in
  • Amosite (Brown) - Is found in Africa; often used in pipe
    insulation, cement sheets, and ceiling tiles
  • Crocidolite (Blue) - Is mined in Australia, South Africa, and
    Bolivia; found in cement materials, steam engines, and pipe
  • Tremolite (Many colors) - Is found as a contaminant in talc
    powders, vermiculite, and chrysotile
  • Anthophyllite (Gray-brown) - Is found as contaminant in
    flooring products
  • Actinolite (Green or colorless) - Is found in various

Asbestos used to be everywhere, and today it is still haunting
places of residences, products that include materials that are
mined within close proximity of asbestos, such as talc,
protective clothes, domestic items and ships. Shipbuilders used
to use asbestos because it resists corrosion and high
temperature, making it a reliable material.

Navy veterans make up about one third of mesothelioma victims.
From 1930-1970, nearly every warship contained anywhere between
30 to 500 tons of asbestos and was used in almost every way
imaginable. Once the link to cancer was beginning to grow
stronger, reviews of these naval ships began. The same care,
however, was not immediately continued over to merchant seamen
and shipbuilders who also handled and were exposed to asbestos
just the same.

Like the veterans, many merchant workers inhaled the fibers while
working in tight spaces and lack of proper ventilation. These
fibers also left families at risk of secondary exposure by
falling on men's clothes that they wore home and their wives
laundered. Though asbestos is not considered dangerous until it
has been released from where it has been contained, it is not
hard to imagine that the continuous vibration and movement of
these large vessels could cause a disturbance leading to more
asbestos-related diseases for seamen.

Asbestos is not completely banned in the U.S. There are still
some products that are made or imported in that are allowed to
contain the material. This is because the 1989 ban on asbestos
brought on by the EPA was overturned by the federal court stating
that the EPA could ban new uses of asbestos, but not ones with
historic use. With this, it is important for merchant seamen to
be aware of what asbestos looks like, and to check in with the
ship's history to see if a review was ever made on it for
asbestos tiles or anything that could contain the material, and
if it is intact.

The Author

Shannon Connor is a Health Advocate at Mesothelioma +
Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA).

Feb 21, 2017

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