By Treven Pyles
Posted on December 21st, 2016
Asbestos fibers can be dislodged through ships' natural vibrations while at sea, leaving seafarers constantly exposed. A study regarding the health risks posed by asbestos exposure among seaman working on commercial ships was published online in the medical journal, Inhalation Toxicology.
Until the late 1970s, asbestos fibers were extensively used in the construction of ships to inhibit fire and chemical hazards while at sea. The most significant source of asbestos exposure in commercial merchant ships seems to be found in the furnaces, machinery, engine rooms, boiler rooms, and navigation rooms.
Even those who didn't work in these crucial areas were still at risk of developing life-altering diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Ship maintenance and repair tasks that were undertaken regularly held the highest risk of asbestos exposure and asbestos-related cancers.
The study was submitted in May 2016 and published online in November 2016. Its results were drawn from measuring airborne asbestos on merchant ships and from studying the resulting health of its merchants over time. Previous studies were also taken into consideration, especially those regarding maritime health and safety, based on the communications and actions of U.S. organizations.
Asbestos was often used for sea vessels because:
According to the results of the new study, asbestos exposure is most probably to have happened during repairs to the ships and maintenance tasks throughout the time that seaman worked aboard merchant ships at sea (i.e. commercial, rather than naval vessels). While performing repair and maintenance tasks on merchant ships, seamen were potentially exposed to "in-place" asbestos.
What attracted the attention of the U.S. government and several industries and labor organizations was the fact that some U.S. seaman reported pleural abnormalities, even if asbestos air levels were found to be below 1 f/cc for most repair and maintenance work.
Up to the 1970s, scientific endeavors and statistics about the potential health risks of asbestos were mostly concentrated on:
From the late 1970s and early 1980s, studies began to include the health risks for merchant seaman, as more and more cases were reported.
In the 1990s, there were increases in lung cancer and mesothelioma showing up in studies of seamen which led researchers to believe there was a significant connection between the seaman lung diseases and the asbestos exposure on ships.
A similar study from 2008 uses historical industrial hygiene data from maritime shipping vessels between 1978 and 1992, including oil tankers and cargo vessels that were docked and/or at sea. Unfortunately, numerous samples that were collected from suspected asbestos-containing materials were taken when there was no interaction with the studied materials.
The study resulted that the minimal presence of undisturbed asbestos did not increase exposure significantly. Asbestos levels were below the occupational standards and steadily below the current expectations of 0.1 f/cc.
Also known as U.S. Maritime Service Ships, merchant marine ships were used in a variety of military operations throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Merchant mariners, a supplemental branch of the U.S. Navy, served aboard merchant ships and vessels providing transportation domestically and internationally for commercial and military purposes. Asbestos-containing materials were used widely on ships constructed prior to 1980, and merchant marines faced the risk of asbestos exposure during active duty.
Each merchant marine ship had an array of personnel who were responsible for many types of jobs such as:
All worked and lived on these ships, and as a result, many were exposed to asbestos as part of their job. Merchant marine ships included hospital ships, tankers and Liberty ships that provided transport cargo and troops from place to place as part of Naval convoy. Despite being built decades ago, some merchant marine ships are still in use, meaning that many current merchant mariners are still at risk for asbestos exposure.