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Retired Navy veteran describes asbestos removal activities below deck

The ship underwent a complete boiler room overhaul that required the removal of the actual ship’s boilers and thousands of feet of asbestos-packed wrappings insulating the aircraft carrier’s heating and plumbing systems.

Mortal asbestos exposure occurs when workers regularly inhale fibers that become airborne in the work area. In the Navy, that occurs when asbestos-made products like steam pipe insulation wraps are cut and removed to reach a plumbing leak; and when workers mix dry powdered asbestos cement to cover and mold new asbestos wraps into place.

Asbestos fibers are microscopic, with sharp jagged edges. When inhaled, they implant themselves in lung tissue where they can fester for decades before a tumor or symptoms can be diagnosed. By then it is too late. Mesothelioma patients, for example, rarely live more than two years after a formal diagnosis.

Asbestos removal in 1960

Four levels below the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Lake Chaplain lie the ship’s four boiler rooms. For a Boilerman-2nd Class, the work is hot, dusty and repetitive. Every time there is a plumbing repair to make, he cuts asbestos insulation from the line with a sharp knife, repairs the leak, and replaces the pipe insulation he cut off with fresh new asbestos wraps.

“When you go to bed at night, you can feel it. A sensation like you had needles stuck in your arms. That’s what it felt like, and it would sometimes take two or three days to get over it.” This gritty job description came out during deposition hearings in a lawsuit he filed against the asbestos-product manufacturers that supplied the U.S. Navy and caused his lung cancer.

A whirlwind of asbestos dust

In 1957, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a boiler room officer, he had no inkling his job would involve working within dense whirlwinds of airborne asbestos dust.

During the boiler room overhaul project in 1960, asbestos was so thick in the air that, “If you stepped foot in the boiler room, you were exposed. It was as simple as that. I don’t care where you go or how you go, you’re still exposed,” he testified during his deposition last year at the age of 69.

“Asbestos insulation was removed from all the ship’s steam lines to check every gasket and valve to make sure they were OK. When that was done, I replaced everything on them; the gaskets, the packing, and the insulation,” he said.

The overhaul project, which lasted for one full year while he lived aboard ship, involved ripping out the aircraft carrier’s boilers, their asbestos-made firebrick foundations, and replacing the system’s super-heated asbestos-insulated pipes.

“The asbestos firebrick was chiseled out, I remember. Some of it was ground out. We had the stuff everywhere. Removing the firebrick was a very dusty job.”

Fans spread dust below deck

Fifty years ago when this project was undertaken, asbestos removal activities were primitive and unregulated by the federal protections that exist today.

The retired veteran admitted never having to wear a mask or a respirator in the Navy, then described how industrial strength fans were employed to help clear the air out of the ship’s boiler rooms, four levels below the flight deck.

“Everything was torn out first. They had to have fans and stuff in there for them to breathe, and it all came out of the boiler room. You had the brick red dust or black dust all over the place from that. Then we helped sweep it up.”