Asbestos was regularly used in the shipbuilding industry as an efficient and inexpensive way to fireproof and insulate engine rooms, boilers, and many other areas onboard. Its carcinogenic properties, however, which were not widely known at the time, continue to cause illness and death today amongst those who served in the navy, as well as civilian workers.
The Irish Naval Service has had to deal with a huge remediation problem, said to be costing the Irish taxpayer around €500,000. In 2000, an asbestos survey was commissioned to check for asbestos on the Irish fleet. The private company carrying out the survey reported no presence of asbestos.
Asbestos discovery led to survey on the whole fleet
Only during later maintenance works was asbestos found. Having discovered it in the pump room of one vessel and the engine room of another, remediation works began using a licensed contractor who executed a “deep environmental clean.”
Several months later the asbestos waste was taken to Germany for safe disposal, all at the taxpayer’s expense. Testing and analysis of asbestos levels in the air was also carried out following Health and Safety Authority (HSA) guidelines.
Serious health implications for those onboard
Prior to the discovery, under the impressions that asbestos presented no danger, naval chiefs ordered onboard maintenance works to go ahead. As a result, servicemen and civilian workers were exposed to deadly fibres for almost three weeks, with no adequate protective equipment or clothing.
No blame was apportioned to the Irish Naval Service by the HSA, because they had taken the correct action in commissioning an asbestos survey, and this had reported no problem.
Unfortunately, the surveying company is no longer in business, but the Permanent Defence Forces Representative Association (PDforra), which represents soldiers, sailors and airmen, is working on behalf of its members.
Unhappy with the investigation
A spokesperson from PDforra stated their disappointment with the investigation, saying that up to 100 members could have been exposed to asbestos both onboard ship, and also in shipyard workshops, where exhausts containing asbestos were ground down. Around 50 civilian workers are also thought to have been at risk of exposure.
The association will ensure that servicemen and women can be screened for asbestos symptoms for the rest of their lives, as diseases including asbestosis and mesothelioma can take up to 60 years to manifest.
Shipbuilding prior to 2000
Asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding due to its resistance to high temperatures, and is often present throughout a ship. The galley and living quarters were commonly sprayed with asbestos coatings for insulation and protection against fire, with the engine and boiler rooms containing various types of asbestos within gaskets, lagging and pipe work.
Although chrysotile (white asbestos) was banned in Ireland in 2000, it continues to cause serious health issues, and releases deadly dust and fibres if it starts to disintegrate.