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Asbestos Use and Exposure in Merchant Mariners

Merchant ships were commercial vessels that became part of the naval fleet during World War II. Unfortunately, many products used onboard merchant ships contained asbestos, putting mariners at risk of mesothelioma. We can help merchant mariners find treatments and compensation if they now have mesothelioma.

Fact-Checked and Updated by: Jenna Tozzi, RN

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Who Were the Merchant Mariners?

Merchant marines worked on merchant ships used to carry imports and exports to and from the U.S. during peacetime, but they became naval auxiliary vessels during the war. The ships were used to transport supplies and goods to troops, and thousands were in use from 1937 to 1947.

During these 10 years alone, over 6,000 boats were built, which meant there was a lot of construction activity in the docks. Unfortunately, all boats made from the 1930s to the early 1980s were made with asbestos-containing products.

Today, asbestos is known to cause deadly illnesses like mesothelioma. These illnesses have no cure.

Veterans from all branches of the military would have been subjected to asbestos at some point in their careers, though Navy veterans —  including merchant mariners — were most at risk. Asbestos was widely used as an insulator, particularly in engine rooms and boiler rooms.

A lot of the mariners would have lived and worked together in tight quarters with a lack of ventilation.

Even those who may not have been working in the boiler or engine rooms may have unknowingly contaminated living quarters by carrying asbestos on their clothing, shoes, and hair.

Once these asbestos particles become airborne, they can be incredibly dangerous to those working in such confined spaces. Veterans who served during this time period need to understand the risks of asbestos exposure and what they can do if they get sick.

Asbestos Use in the Merchant Marines

With the onset of war in the 1930s, thousands of new ships were built to assist the Navy. Due to the durability and affordability of asbestos, the material was used on all ships built between the 1930s and the 1980s.

Asbestos was seen as a useful material to use as insulation, and as a result, it was used within the walls of the ship, around pipes, in the boiler room and as an anti-heat component in brakes and clutches.

The most substantial vessels could have contained up to 1,000 tons of asbestos each.

Merchant mariners may be at risk of developing mesothelioma due to the asbestos used in the construction of ships too. The workers would have inhaled the asbestos fibers day after day, and the longer a merchant marine served, the more chance they have of being exposed to the material and developing mesothelioma.

The Journal of Industrial Medicine published a study that looked at 3,300 long-term merchant mariners and noted that one-third of them had abnormalities in their pleural (lung) lining — where mesothelioma often develops.

They also noted a correlation between the length of time a mariner worked on the ship and their type of job. Workers in ship engine rooms were worse off, as they were exposed to far more asbestos in close-confinement.

The lack of ventilation and breathing equipment contributed to the extent of the exposure.

The most common type of asbestos to be found was chrysotile, a mineral with curly fibers that accounts for over 90% of asbestos in the United States. Amosite would also have been used on ships to insulate pipes.

The third type of asbestos sometimes used on ships was crocidolite (otherwise known as ‘blue’ asbestos). This type is far rarer, but it’s also the most dangerous.

The long, straight fibers can more easily puncture the lining of the lungs, and the brittle nature of the material meant it was easier to break off than other kinds of asbestos.

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High-Risk Asbestos Exposure Jobs in the Merchant Marines

During World War II, the mariners were at the mercy of many dangers. The one they may not have thought about, however, was asbestos.

Workers who most often came into contact with the ship’s machinery, pipes, boilers, furnaces or engines were most at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, as asbestos was commonly used to line and insulate these components.

Ship Boiler Rooms

One of the most high-risk jobs was the fitting and maintenance of boilers.

Until the 1970s, boilers, both on ships and off, were insulated with asbestos to contain heat and avoid burning those coming into contact with the boiler. However, when it came to maintaining the boilers, marines would have to remove parts of the asbestos to gain access, which would disperse the asbestos fibers and potentially poison the workers.

Modern-Day Boilermaker Risks

While asbestos is no longer allowed to be used in this capacity, even present-day boilermakers could be at risk of coming into contact with asbestos in boiler rooms if they have not been recently updated.

If this is the case, workers should be given proper ventilation equipment and protective clothing to avoid being exposed to the toxic material and carrying it to other areas of the ship.

Ship Maintenance

Most of the operational maintenance that occurred was below deck, meaning that other marines in the confined, unventilated spaces under deck may also become exposed to asbestos, even in other areas of the ship.

Secondhand asbestos exposure can be as dangerous as first-hand, with many ship workers and mariners experiencing asbestos health effects after fibers were transported on engineers’ clothing to other vessel areas.


Workers who helped in shipyards were at equal risk of developing mesothelioma as they installed the asbestos.

While asbestos is not dangerous when intact, shipbuilders chipped away at the asbestos to make it fit in the walls or around boilers, which would have caused the fibers to become airborne.

Once in the air, the asbestos fibers could easily circulate in these confined spaces and affect mariners and other workers who were on site.

VA Compensation and Health Benefits for the Merchant Marines

Mesothelioma can take many years to show symptoms, but if merchant mariners have been affected by asbestos and have received a diagnosis, they are within their legal rights to file for VA compensation. Veterans can be screened for mesothelioma at a VA medical center, and treatments are available for those eligible.

Thousands of merchant mariners have been awarded compensation that can help towards loss-of-earnings due to illness.

A mariner in the UK filed a lawsuit against a multinational oil company he had worked for and received payment for damages after being exposed to asbestos for a six-hour period, which resulted in him developing mesothelioma.

The mariner accounts how he was required to remove insulation from pipes and turbine casings in an engine room. The task was to be completed using hammers and chisels, cutting away at 12-inch think asbestos insulation in a confined environment without respiratory equipment.

In this case, the mariner was successful in claiming compensation.

Apply for VA Benefits as a Merchant Mariner

While merchant mariners helped the Navy, they were not until recently considered veterans regarding federal benefits.

Fortunately, there are some VA benefits available for mariners who served in a variety of circumstances.

Our team can help merchant mariners see if they qualify for VA benefits, and also recommend options to receive medical care and compensation.

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Written by:

Director of Patient Advocacy

Jenna Tozzi, RN, is the Director of Patient Advocacy at Mesothelioma Hope. With more than 15 years of experience as an adult and pediatric oncology nurse navigator, Jenna provides exceptional guidance and support to mesothelioma patients and their loved ones. Jenna has been featured in Oncology Nursing News and is a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators & the American Nurses Association.

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  1. Congressional Research Service (2022, November 2). Veteran Status Based on Service with Certain Civilian Groups. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from
  2. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (n.d.). M21-1, Part X, Subpart i, Chapter 5, Section A – Establishing Veteran Status Based on Merchant Marine Service. Retrieved October 6, 2023, from

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