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United States Navy Battleships

At one time, battleships were the United States Navy’s backbone. To protect the ships and sailors from fire, the U.S. Navy demanded that most interior parts of a battleship were coated in asbestos. Unfortunately, asbestos exposure is now known to cause deadly cancers like mesothelioma.

Fact-Checked and Updated by: Jenna Tozzi, RN

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World War II saw the height of battleship action. Although a number of battleships were sunk or severely damaged at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had sufficient battleship numbers to support the Atlantic and Pacific conflicts.

Many new battleships were planned and authorized for construction early in the war, but battleship building was put on hold in 1943 when aircraft carrier technology and tactics proved much more successful than the now-outdated battleship.

In total, thousands of Navy veterans served on 71 U.S. battleships. All bore the hull classification symbol “BB” although they were divided into certain classifications depending on the series these heavy-armored weapons were produced in.

All American battleships were named after states such as the famous ships BB-61USS Iowa, BB-62 USS New Jersey and BB-63 USS Missouri. And all of these ships were built with asbestos, a highly durable — and deadly — material.

The end of World II wasn’t the end of American battleships even though no more were constructed. Battleships remained a vital part of the U.S. Navy’s military sea presence in Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War and the first Gulf conflict.

Battleships were decommissioned in the early 1990s with the last two stricken from the Navy’s registry in 2014. The surviving battleships are now public museums like the Missouri, which was returned to Pearl Harbor.

Asbestos Use in Navy Battleships

Every U.S Navy battleship built from the early 1900s was loaded with asbestos. Back then, naval architects and shipbuilders saw asbestos as the ideal product to insulate and fireproof battleships.

Why Asbestos Was Used on Ships

Asbestos was non-corrosive, making it ideal for saltwater environments. Furthermore, asbestos was non-conductive, lightweight, chemically inert and cheap to buy.

U.S. Navy records report that the USS Iowa contained almost 500 tons of insulation. Most of this contained asbestos in percentages from 10 to 90 percent.

The highest-risk places for asbestos exposure were:

  • Engine and boiler rooms
  • Propulsion rooms
  • Magazines and munition stores
  • Galleys and sleeping quarters
  • Fire and pump rooms
  • Gun and cannon turrets

Asbestos was everywhere inside battleships and on some outer surfaces, too. Sailors couldn’t escape asbestos exposure on a battleship, regardless of where they were posted.

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Types of Asbestos Products Used in Battleships

Because asbestos seemed the perfect insulator and fire protector, battleships coated every pipe, duct, and cable with asbestos. Asbestos-containing products could be found in almost every part of a battleship, including floor, wall, and ceiling surfaces.

These are some asbestos-containing products used on U.S. Navy battleships:

  • Spray-on, block, loose-fill and pipe-wrap insulation
  • Soundproofing
  • Firewall and heat control products
  • Boiler liners and blankets
  • Gaskets, valves, and packing
  • Paint, sealant, caulking and adhesive
  • Electric wire coating
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Cement and mortar powder
  • Ropes and cables
  • Fireproof protective clothing
  • Welding rods
  • Fireproof paper and underlayment

Anyone who worked with or handled these products was at risk of asbestos exposure.

High-Risk Asbestos Occupations on Battleships

It’s safe to say every sailor who worked on a battleship prior to the 1980s was exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. Old and dry asbestos materials easily become friable and turn to powder.

Some of the highest-risk battleship occupations were:

  • Firefighters
  • Temperature control personnel
  • Welders
  • Metal fabricators
  • Boilermakers
  • Electricians
  • Plumbers
  • Steamfitters
  • Insulators
  • Painters
  • Wallboard installers
  • Engine technicians
  • Weapons specialists
  • Hull maintenance workers
  • Mechanics
  • Millwrights

Battleships were poorly ventilated. Clouds of microscopic asbestos fibers filled the air, where sailors and shipyard workers inhaled and ingested them.

Help for Navy Veterans with Mesothelioma

U.S. Navy veterans who served onboard or around battleships have a high risk of developing diseases like mesothelioma. This terrible disorder has a lengthy latency period of 20 to 50 years from the time of exposure to when disease symptoms present.

Thankfully, veterans can receive financial compensation and other benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Our team can help you learn more about accessing these benefits.

Get our free mesothelioma guide today.

Jenna TozziWritten 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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