Horrible toll could have been avoided
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001
They came by the tens of thousands, called to arms in the shipyards of
Hampton Roads to help build the armada that would keep the world safe
They toiled in the bellies of great gray warships during and after World
War II, wrapping mazes of pipes, engines, boilers and turbines with asbestos
insulation. Fogs of asbestos dust often were so thick workers couldn't
see each other.
They used no masks or respirators. No one told them they should.
At day's end, they wore the residue home, into their kitchens and living
rooms, where the fine white powder invaded the lungs of their wives and
They didn't know it could kill them, but the asbestos industry and the
Shipyard workers exposed to asbestos during World War II died at nearly
the same rate as the men in uniform. And the asbestos exposure continued
into the 1950s, '60s and '70s -- triggering the worst workplace tragedy
in American history.
When the dying stops, it will have claimed some 100,000 shipyard workers
and their family members, thousands of them in Hampton Roads.
Every 10 days, doctors diagnose someone here with a relatively rare form
of lung cancer called mesothelioma. Its only known cause is asbestos.
It occurs in Hampton Roads at seven times the national rate and kills
with fearsome swiftness.
Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases have lengthy latency
periods and will continue to sicken and kill for three more decades.
And the tragedy could have been avoided.
Industry and government officials knew before World War II that asbestos
was hazardous but did little to warn or protect workers until the mid-
and late 1970s.
For its part, the Navy issued wartime safety standards but failed to
enforce them for more than three decades, even as increasingly lethal
asbestos diseases were identified, even as workers became ill and died.
The service violated its own ban on asbestos in new ship construction
in the 1970s, and the Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth issued a gag order
to its workers, forbidding anyone to talk to lawyers about asbestos disease.
The Navy has never conducted, and says it does not plan to conduct, a
survey to determine the extent of the asbestos-disease problem among shipyard
workers and sailors.
So far, more than 15,000 people, most of them shipyard workers and their
family members, have filed lawsuits and legal claims in Hampton Roads
for asbestos-related diseases that occurred on the job. Local victims
have collected at least $800 million in damages. The ultimate payout likely
will equal or surpass $1 billion. Lawyers will pocket about a third of
Staggered by lawsuits, 27 major companies that manufactured or sold
asbestos products have gone bankrupt.
Almost all asbestos products have been removed from the workplace, but
the avalanche of lawsuits has continued into the 21st century, sending
new convulsions throughout financial markets, threatening to force even
Lloyd's of London into insolvency.
And nowhere does the tragedy exact more suffering than in Hampton Roads,
whose lifeblood long has been great seagoing vessels and the men and women
who build them, repair them and serve aboard them.