Asbestos Use on Navy Minesweepers

From World War II onwards, Navy minesweepers played an essential role in destroying sea mines and creating a safe path through the ocean. However, due to how these ships were constructed, many sailors and workers may be at risk of developing mesothelioma from asbestos exposure.

Written and Fact-Checked by: Laura Wright

About U.S. Navy Minesweepers

The first U.S. Navy minesweeper was constructed in 1917 and was named the USS Lapwing — after the bird of the same name known for its irregular wingbeat when flying. The job of a minesweeper was to sweep the seas of various mines.

Asbestos on Minesweepers

Unfortunately, asbestos was a cheap and durable substance at the time, so it was used throughout minesweepers to insulate and control potential fires. These toxic fibers put everyone on board at risk of diseases like mesothelioma.

Minesweepers were vitally needed, but as with all shipbuilding during this time, there were substantial numbers of sailors and workers who suffered from asbestos-related diseases as a result.

The use of asbestos was prevalent as it was deemed a safe substance to protect against heat and fire. In 1940, the U.S. used 439,000 tons of asbestos in shipbuilding efforts alone.

Asbestos Use in Navy Minesweepers

As asbestos was versatile, inexpensive and lightweight, it made the ideal substance in ship construction. Asbestos was also notoriously flame-retardant, making it useful around high-heat objects, like engine boilers.

Asbestos-Based Protective Clothing

One of the most unfortunate ways in which workers were exposed was through their own ‘protective’ clothing. They were often given gloves made from asbestos to handle hot equipment on the ship.

Vermiculite wall insulation was also used in living quarters to protect workers from potential fires elsewhere on the vessel.

Ship Maintenance

Asbestos was not deemed dangerous when it remained whole, but over time the fibers in the asbestos began to break up and become airborne.

Whenever routine maintenance was carried out on minesweepers, asbestos was disturbed and the harmful particles released into the air.

This would be dangerous under any circumstance, but even more so in the confined spaces of a ship’s boiler room, for example.

Asbestos fibers were notorious for clinging to hair, shoes and clothing, meaning that they could be transported to other areas of the ship and contaminate workers who would not, ordinarily, ever come into contact with asbestos.

A 2007 study found that workers from a U.S. shipyard experienced an excess of mesothelioma of the pleura (lungs) and peritoneum (abdomen) from their exposure to asbestos.

The study also found that there were high rates of asbestos-related diseases not only in those who worked on the ships, but also office workers and guards in the area who had no direct contact with asbestos.

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Asbestos-Containing Products Used in Navy Minesweepers

From the 1930s onward, minesweeper ships were made using hundreds of asbestos-containing products.

These are some types of asbestos products used in Navy minesweepers:

  • Insulation lining and blankets for boilers
  • Asbestos cement, cloth and pipe covering around steam pipes
  • Packing, felts and gasket coverings
  • Auxiliary exhaust insulations
  • Air compressors
  • Distilling apparatus
  • Spray-on, block, loose-fill and pipe-wrap insulation
  • Fireproof protective clothing
  • Cement and mortar powder
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Firewall and heat control products

Working with any of these products could put those aboard a minesweeper at risk of exposure.

High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Navy Minesweepers

The most high-risk workers included those who spent the majority of their time in the engine rooms and boiler rooms, as asbestos was used to line these heated units.

Other high-risk Navy minesweeper jobs included:

  • Shipyard work
  • Construction work
  • Painting
  • Pipefitting
  • Electric work
  • Welding
  • Plumbing
  • Maintenance work

The asbestos would break up over time. When it needed to be replaced, the workers would often have to remove the old parts.

This work could send asbestos fibers flying into the air, where they could be inhaled and harm human health.

Help for Navy Veterans With Mesothelioma

U.S. Navy veterans who served or worked in the construction of Navy minesweepers may be at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses, such as mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma can take 20 to 50 years to develop, so veterans may not know they were put in danger until decades later.

There are treatments to help those with mesothelioma, but it is essential to seek the help of a specialist to receive a quick diagnosis.

If you’re a Navy veteran who has developed mesothelioma, you may be eligible for VA benefits, medical treatments, and financial compensation. Our team can tell you everything you need to know after a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Get our free mesothelioma guide today.

Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

  1. Shipyard workers and asbestos: a persistent and international problem. Retrieved from: Accessed on April 22, 2018

  2. Minesweeper. Retrieved from: Accessed on April 22, 2018

  3. Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences. Retrieved from: Accessed on April 22, 2018

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