Asbestos Exposure in the Navy

United States Naval ship on the horizon

Of all branches of the United States military, being a Navy veteran carries the highest risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses. If you are a veteran with a diagnosed illness related to asbestos exposure during your service, you can get treatment and benefits through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). You may also be entitled to compensation through VA claims and asbestos trust funds.

What Is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a collection of six different naturally occurring minerals. Because these minerals are made of flexible fibers that are resistant to fire, heat, electricity, and corrosion, asbestos was once a wildly popular construction material. Unfortunately, asbestos is also highly toxic, as inhalation or ingestion can cause the fibers to become permanently trapped in the body. But the material’s toxicity was not discovered until the 1960s, and few restrictions were placed on its use until 1989. Even today, while it is highly restricted, asbestos is not fully banned in the United States.

Asbestos on Naval Ships

Asbestos could be found on nearly every Naval ship prior to the 1980s. Nearly a third of all documented mesothelioma diagnoses are from veterans, and we've only seen a fraction of those yet to come because symptoms can appear up to 50 years after asbestos exposure.

Fires were a routine occurrence and were a potentially devastating threat to Navy assets and personnel, making the extensive use of asbestos insulation an important aspect of ship construction. Asbestos was a choice material given its ability to contain heat and prevent fires, and it was a very affordable option.

Despite the growing awareness of the dangers of asbestos, it's still permissible for it to be used on Navy ships if there are no other alternatives. The Navy has taken great action to remove most asbestos from ships. However, some asbestos remains on ships to this day.

The Deadly Truth

In the 1980s, the Navy became aware of the deadly truth about asbestos and immediately began to take action. They started equipping their servicemen and servicewomen with breathing protection while working toward ridding their ships of asbestos products. However, such monumental actions took time. Even after the dangers of asbestos were exposed and the Navy began retrofitting its ships, service members may have still been exposed to asbestos.

Still, the greatest risks of asbestos exposure were to U.S. Navy veterans and shipyard workers who served between 1930 and 1980. It can take decades for asbestos-related illnesses to emerge, so many people who were exposed in that era are just now being diagnosed with mesothelioma or asbestosis.

What Are Mesothelioma and Asbestosis?

Mesothelioma is an aggressive, often deadly cancer of the mesothelium. The mesothelium is the thin lining of the abdomen, chest, and lungs. It emits a lubricating fluid that helps your organs freely move around. There are different types of mesothelioma, some of which are more deadly than others. It is also possible to develop benign (non-cancerous) mesothelium tumors. There are treatments for mesothelioma, but many people are unable to be cured.

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease that can develop from asbestos fiber inhalation. Symptoms include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Crackling sound in lungs
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Clubbing of the fingers and toes

Asbestosis can be treated and slowed, but not reversed. It can also heighten the risk of future mesothelioma.

Who's at Risk of Asbestos-Related Illnesses?

If you are a veteran or have a family member who is a veteran, you may be wondering who was and is at risk. People who are considered at-risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses include:

  • Those involved in the repair or removal of damaged asbestos materials or asbestos insulation
  • Shipfitters and pipefitters, who were often required to saw through asbestos-covered pipes
  • Boilermen, enginemen, and those tasked with maintaining aircraft carrier boilers and engine rooms, who typically handled asbestos-containing gaskets and valves, and frequently removed damaged asbestos insulation
  • Shipyard workers involved in the construction of Navy vessels
  • Navy veterans and civilians who worked in any shipyard in the 1930s through the 1990s, as asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding during that time frame

Additionally, other individuals who may have done work on asbestos-containing naval ships, include:

  • Firefighters
  • Machinists
  • Electricians
  • Metalsmiths
  • Seabees (military construction)
  • Crew members performing routine maintenance on asbestos-containing parts or vessel infrastructure
  • Crew members in torpedo rooms
  • Gunner's mates
  • All crew members or civilians who worked on the construction of or served on minesweepers

It should be noted that family members and close friends of Navy veterans and shipyard workers may also be at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses through secondary exposure. Asbestos fibers can cling to clothes, skin, and hair, meaning that these fibers could have been brought home or carried to other places by veterans and shipyard workers – exposing others to the dangers of asbestos.

Which Vessels Contained Asbestos?

Asbestos was used on all naval vessels, with the greatest risk being to those below deck on minesweepers, warships, and submarines. This was primarily due to the need for insulation and fireproofing. Consequently, the combination of asbestos products, tight quarters, and poor ventilation allowed asbestos fibers to accumulate everywhere that service members worked, slept, and ate.

Aircraft Carriers

Archived documents confirm the existence of asbestos products on aircraft carriers, specifically gaskets, tile, and insulation. It was particularly common in laundry rooms, laundry issue rooms, laundry receiving rooms, and boiler rooms.

Auxiliary Ships

According to archived documents, asbestos products were used in many areas of auxiliary ships, specifically bulkheads, gaskets, insulation, pipes, cloth, lagging, decks, beams, girders, magazines, boilers, and fire-resistant sheets. Areas of these ships with a lot of asbestos included ship decks, ready service rooms, refrigeration spaces, navigation bridges, and any part of the ship that was regularly exposed to the elements.


Archived documents confirm that asbestos products were used on cruisers. Specific uses included cloth insulation for valves and pipe flange cuffs, insulation and lagging, gaskets, packing rings, turbines, valves, gasoline meters, autoclaves, condensers, ventilation ducts, auxiliary condenser circulation pumps, gaskets used for elevator pit drainage pumps, and gaskets for piping on main boilers.


According to archived documents, asbestos materials were present on destroyers, specifically gaskets, adhesives, valves, lagging, deck matting, insulation, cloth on steam drums and F.O. heaters, and asbestos cement. It was especially common in navigation rooms, engine and boiler rooms, service member sleeping quarters, and mess halls. In addition, gunner's mates (especially those serving in the Korean conflict) were required to wear asbestos gloves while shooting guns and loading ammunition.


Archived documents confirm that asbestos products were widely used on minesweepers, specifically insulation around engine boilers and other compartments that experienced high temperatures, steam pipes insulated with asbestos cement, cloth, and pipe covering. There was also confirmation of asbestos in packing, felts, pads, and gaskets all over the ships. More than 300 parts on minesweepers contained asbestos. It was especially common in boiler rooms, engine rooms, service member sleeping quarters, and nearly all areas below deck.


Submarines required a lot of asbestos use due to their small, cramped spaces and the flexible, lightweight properties asbestos offered as an insulating material. The danger of fire is much greater for underwater vessels, and escape is much less possible, making the need for fire-resistant materials more pivotal.

Archived documents confirm the existence of asbestos products on submarines, specifically gaskets for flanged valves, piping thermal insulation, gaskets for main turbines, auxiliary power cables, cork insulation, felt used for machinery, and automatic drain valves.

Crew members onboard submarines spent long periods inside, meaning that they had an especially high risk of significant exposure- especially when you consider that all air within submarines was recirculated.

If you or a loved one are a veteran who has received a diagnosis of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness, you may be entitled to compensation. The U.S. Navy provides many different options for their servicemen and servicewomen, including VA healthcare and benefits.

You may also be able to bring a legal claim against the manufacturers of the asbestos products that were used on Navy vessels. Note that the Navy, U.S. Armed Forces, or any branch of the military or government would NOT be a named defendant in your claim.

There are statutes of limitations on mesothelioma claims, so it's crucial for you to secure an attorney as soon as possible after diagnosis. Take advantage of our free case evaluation and we'll contact you with your options.

Learn More About Mesothelioma and Asbestos