USS Forrestal (CV-59) Evolution 1981

Asbestos was widely used in the ship building industry from the 1930's until asbestos use was discontinued in the early 1970's. Asbestos use was particularly high during the build-up of the United States Navy during World War II. Asbestos was a primary building component of every ship. Its high tensile strength, combined with its characteristics as an excellent fire retardant and temperature insulator, made it a common material in almost every section of each ship.

Asbestos is also now known to be one of the primary causes of mesothelioma, and another serious and deadly lung disease, asbestosis. Both of these diseases derive from the inhalation (or ingestion) of asbestos and the subsequent lodging of the asbestos fibers in certain membranes in the body organs. Over time, the lodged asbestos fibers lead to scarring and in some cases, malignant mesothelioma cancer.

This story relates to sailors, primarily radiomen, who worked in MAINCOMM (or main communication room) of the USS Forrestal. These men may have had exposure to high concentrations of asbestos dust over a relatively short time period. The routine on the USS Forrestal, as with other major Naval vessels, was to deploy on cruises for typically 6 to 9 months. Upon the return from a cruise, the ship would undergo an evolution. During this evolution, maintenance would be done on the ship and the equipment to extend the working life of the vessel. This maintenance would include stripping and repainting many areas of the ship, replacing the flight deck, etc.

On one such evolution in 1981, the tiles in the MAINCOMM area were removed and replaced. Although the initial evaluation of the tiles suggested that they were not made of asbestos, this was incorrect. Typically, asbestos tiles measured 9 X 9. The green tiles on the Forrestal were larger and thus it was assumed that they were not made of asbestos. During this evolution, as the tiles were removed with jack hammers and other pneumatic equipment, dust became thick in the air of MAINCOMM. Furthermore, after the first layer of tiles was removed, it was discovered that there were multiple layers of tiles underneath, increasing the amount of asbestos dust that circulated in the air. MAINCOMM, by virtue of the highly sensitive information that flows through this communication center on an aircraft carrier, is a tightly enclosed area. This enclosed area did not allow for much circulation or clearing of the dusty air.

At first, the men working on the tiles in the MAINCOMM area were provided thin paper masks and eye protectors. But, as several men become ill from the heavy dust concentration in the air, it was determined that this protective equipment was insufficient. Eventually the Navy supplied the crewmen with the appropriate breathing masks to guard against the dust inhalation. Although the exposure to the dust occurred for a relatively short time period, many of these crewmen inhaled large quantities of the dust.

Now, years later, the crewmen have learned that the short time and heavy concentration of asbestos exposure could be associated with the development of asbestos-related diseases, such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma. Although the asbestos tile removal required only about two weeks, the crewmen are now reporting lung problems.

One such crewman, who was a supervisor in the MAINCOMM, has been diagnosed with asbestosis. This radioman was directly involved with the asbestos tile removal during the 1981 evolution and has had no other known exposure to asbestos. Studies now show that there is no minimum time period of asbestos exposure that can lead to asbestos lung cancer. It is thought that the primary factor related to the incidence of these diseases is the amount of asbestos inhaled, not necessarily the time period of the inhalation. Other crewman of the Forrestal, and other ships, should be aware of how this type of asbestos exposure can potentially lead to asbestos-related diseases. During physical and medical examinations, the examining physicians should be told of the previous asbestos exposure.


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