Throughout much of the 20th century, and before asbestos awareness was acknowledged for the horrific and mostly fatal consequences of exposure, the deadly insulation material was widely used for it’s cheap corrosion and heat resistant properties in the world’s shipbuilding industries and dockyards, including the UK.

Until the 1970s, over 300 asbestos-containing materials were commonly used in UK ship fit-outs, and although the Royal Navy eventually implemented an asbestos abatement programme, many of the harmful materials remained in place on existing ships.

From insulated hot steam pipes, hot water lines and fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers through to boilers containing asbestos brick and asbestos liners, exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves, packing assemblies, insulation felts and adhesives and many more components to be found outside of the engine room.

It was estimated that a ship of aircraft carrier size could contain as much as 500 to 1,000 tons of asbestos and asbestos-containing material. Even as late as 1980, the Royal Yacht Britannia, built in 1952, was discovered to be still riddled with asbestos insulation when being decommissioned.

Although the long latency periods of up to 40-50 years after asbestos exposure has often meant that former shipbuilding and dockyard workers would only be overtaken by the asbestos-related diseases of asbestosis and mesothelioma in the latter years of their lives, there is considerable recorded evidence of asbestosis symptoms coming to light as early as 15 years after first exposure.

In 1965, cases of asbestosis were discovered at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, when a radiological survey of 10 per cent of the dockyard population showed that 4-5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years, had radiographic abnormalities of the lung or pleura, probably caused by exposure to asbestos dust.

A similar radiological survey of 10 per cent of the whole population of the dockyards at Chatham, Portsmouth and Rosyth showed that between 2 and 3.4 per cent of those populations had abnormalities attributable to the inhalation of asbestos. In both surveys, pleural abnormalities were also many times more common.

Further information obtained from the four naval dockyards has been used to estimate the prevalence of asbestos diseases in the dockyard populations. In addition, long-term studies of the relationships between cause of death and exposure to asbestos have been dependent on the detailed analyses, forming the basis of many past and present cases for an asbestosis claim or mesothelioma compensation.