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Mesothelioma risk: shipyards present asbestos exposure hazards

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Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer primarily caused by asbestos exposure. Thousands of shipyard employees have either passed away or have been diagnosed with the disease and more are expected as the incidence of mesothelioma is not predicted to peak until 2020.

Asbestos was heavily utilized throughout the shipyard industry for its insulating and fireproofing capabilities. Because of these qualities, asbestos was incorporated into nearly all naval vessels from the World War II era and into the 1980s.

Approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in the United States each year. Navy veterans make up a significant amount of those diagnosed and many were exposed to asbestos more than 30 years ago.

Symptoms of mesothelioma can take as long as 50 years to develop after a person’s initial exposure to asbestos. In many cases, symptoms resemble those of more common conditions and doctors may overlook mesothelioma as a diagnosis. This often results in a delayed diagnosis and at a time when the cancer has already reached the latest stages of development.

Some of the ships that were commonly built with asbestos-containing materials include battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and auxillary vessels. Areas and materials that usually contained the hazardous mineral were boiler rooms, sleeping quarters, pipes and miscellaneous parts that needed to be insulated.

Crew members aboard these vessels faced the risk of exposure through everyday tasks and during combat. When ships returned home for overhauls and maintenance periods, shipyard workers employed throughout the country were at great risk of being exposed by repairing and replacing asbestos-containing parts.

The majority of shipyard workers did not have access to proper preventative gear to protect them from exposure.  Most were completely unaware that exposure to asbestos carried any risk at all.

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency enforces strict regulations concerning asbestos exposure and the handling of asbestos-containing materials. Past shipyard workers or Navy veterans who believe they may have been exposed to asbestos should seek routine medical examinations to check for signs of asbestos exposure.

Additional information about mesothelioma and asbestos exposure may be found through the Mesothelioma Center.

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