Two groups of British industrial workers recognised as being the most vulnerable from exposure to asbestos were shipbuilders and dockyard workers. The many hundreds of thousands of engineers, mechanics and crew of both naval and commercial vessels were also at high risk of asbestos exposure. New research suggests that those men who worked aboard commercial ships may be at an even greater risk of developing mesothelioma – the fatal incurable cancer of the lung linings.

Since the mid 1960s, research carried out in dockyards across the northeast and the south coast of England consistently recorded some of the highest fatality rates caused by asbestosis and mesothelioma. Between 3 and 5 per cent of survey samples of dockyard populations revealed abnormalities of the lung or lung linings most likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos.

35 per cent rise in asbestos-related conditions

As recently as 2012, it was found that the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate occurred in the Medway area of the South East where more than 100 deaths from mesothelioma were recorded in the previous six years. Another known asbestos blackspot is Tayside – traditional shipbuilding region of north-east of Scotland – which has recorded a 35 per cent rise in asbestos-related conditions. More than 100 people were admitted to hospital in 2013 for asbestos-related diseases compared to just 74 annual cases, five years previously.

Vessel fit-outs would include a wide number of skilled and semi-skilled men, including engine and electrical fitters, shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, labourers, rope makers, supervisors, cleaners and asbestos lagging installers. More than 300 types of insulation products containing asbestos fibres were widely used to line a ship’s boiler, bulkhead and exhaust systems. Asbestos lagging was a common method throughout the shipbuilding industry to protect a vessel’s key systems and components including, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water and fuel lines, turbines, compressors and condensers.

Merchant seamen were also highly vulnerable

Since the 1970s, increasing asbestos awareness to the long term deadly health risk led to the recognition that, just like naval serviceman who often slept in bunks positioned below asbestos-covered pipes, merchant seamen were also highly vulnerable to inhaling asbestos fibre dust aboard ship. To date, there has been little data to show how high the risk was of developing future asbestos-related illnesses.

Recent investigations have discovered that the danger of asbestos exposure on commercial ships was largely ignored for several decades after the 1950s and 60s when the incidence of malignant mesothelioma among workers in asbestos product manufacturing and milling industries began to be raise serious concern. Research has found that attention to merchant seamen exposed to asbestos and the potential health risk only began from the mid 1970s to early 1980s onwards.

During the 1990s rates of lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma among merchant seamen began to rise, leading researchers to make a link between asbestos exposure on commercial vessels and cancer.

Higher lifetime risk of pleural mesothelioma

While tests found the level of asbestos exposure during routine repairs aboard commercial ships was likely to be low, nevertheless, the data was a warning to seamen and the merchant shipping industry generally, which led to increased precautions to prevent asbestos exposure.

Those men who worked or sailed on both commercial and naval ships were potentially at a higher lifetime risk of pleural mesothelioma, including those who repaired or later decommissioned the vessels.

Onboard a ship, where being in close quarters and poor ventilation increases asbestos hazards, nobody is immune from asbestos dust exposure. The potential for asbestos fibres to turn health tissue cells cancerous can develop at any time from between 10 and 50 years after the initial period of exposure.

Research also shows there are significant health risks for those now responsible for dismantling and recycling materials from vessels still containing large quantities of asbestos. Where previous research from Finland and Norway had found a 26 per cent higher risk of lung cancer for shipyard workers, one recent study of more than 4,200 ship-breakers in Taiwan between 1985 and 2008 found nearly a ten per cent risk of a cancer diagnosis, compared to just under 7 per cent for those not working in asbestos salvage.