One of America’s oldest shipbuilding facilities was filled with asbestos.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard is among the oldest shipbuilding facilities in the United States. 

Established in 1801, the Yard constructed some of the best-known warships in American history, including the Civil War-era U.S.S. Monitor and the U.S.S. Arizona, the latter of which was destroyed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

During the Second World War, the Brooklyn Navy Yard expanded its workforce to encompass more than 70,000 employees. While the facility helped launch the United States’ invasions of Western Europe and the Mediterranean, the military inadvertently exposed many of the yard’s workers to a potentially life-threatening concentrations of asbestos. 

Although the yard was formally decommissioned in 1966, it was soon acquired by the City of New York and transformed into in a private development corporation, Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings. 

Today, nobody knows exactly how many military contractors, or their loved ones, have been hurt by the asbestos products manufactured at Brooklyn Navy Yard.

However, research suggests that former sailors, shipbuilders, and longshoremen are at heightened risk for aggressive, asbestos-related conditions, up to and including and cancer.

Asbestos at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

People have worked with asbestos since times immemorial. However, asbestos only became a mainstay of American manufacturing between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

After the United States industrialized, millions of people began moving away from the countryside and into cities. These people brought with them not only dreams for a better life, but a demand for cheap consumer goods and affordable urban housing. 

For decades, home builders and manufacturers thought that asbestos could provide a ready-made solution to America’s urbanization. 

Asbestos was used for shipbuilding and fireproofing because asbestos minerals are:

  • Strong
  • Resilient
  • Difficult to corrode
  • Electrical insulators
  • Fire-resistant

Asbestos’s durability and fire-resistant qualities made it especially attractive to the United States Navy, which hoped that asbestos-based products could fortify ships and prevent maritime catastrophes. 

Between 1939 and 1945, the Brooklyn Navy Yard was among the most active shipbuilding sites in the country. However, employees who never set foot aboard a completed vessel may have still worked with dangerous amounts of asbestos

Areas of high asbestos exposure at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The United States Navy and Brooklyn Navy Yard used asbestos to:

  • Insulate walls; 
  • Fabricate boiler and duct components; 
  • Line incinerators; and 
  • Wrap pipes, both inside shipbuilding facilities and on-board boats still under construction. 

Some products were inherently more dangerous than others. Lagging, for instance, was a cloth-like material used to wrap steam pipes in ships. Brooklyn Navy Yard employees were sometimes tasked with making their own lagging, which could have contained concentrations of asbestos up to 90%.

Safety Measures for dealing with asbestos at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Asbestos warnings and regulations came after asbestos companies knew it was unhealthy.

Since the risks of asbestos were not well-known until the 1970s, few sailors or shipbuilders used safety equipment to work with lagging and other asbestos-contaminated products. 

However, the United States Armed Forces suspected the asbestos could cause respiratory disorders as early as the 1930s.

“The overall evidence suggests there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.”

Source: National Cancer Institute (NIH) 1

Early occupational regulation of asbestos

In 1940, Brooklyn Navy Yard safety inspectors recommended procedural overhauls to protect workers from asbestos. The facility’s chief medical advisor advised that:

  • Sandblasters receive semi-annual chest X-rays
  • Asbestos workers receive annual chest X-rays 
  • Industrial X-ray and radium workers receive regular blood analyses
  • Other employees who routinely interacted or engaged with potentially toxic substances be put under routine medical surveillance

While Brooklyn Navy Yard made some, limited efforts to curtail asbestos exposure—in some cases, requiring that workers wear protective goggles and keep their sleeves rolled up—asbestos inhalation still posed a dire risk. 

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Asbestos Manufacturers Understated the Dangers of Their Products

After the Second World War, asbestos companies began investigating the dangers of their product. They commissioned medical studies on asbestos’ health effects and tried to find ways to limit risk.

But when it became apparent that asbestos can cause chronic respiratory disorders, genetic mutations, and even cancer, the asbestos industry actively concealed its findings, hoping that the American public would never realize that the so-called “miracle mineral” is anything but miraculous. 

Asbestos regulation in the United States was late in arriving.

Unfortunately, it took decades for the government to begin curtailing the widespread use of asbestos. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, did not begin taking action against asbestos until the late 1970s. 

The American Lung Association has stated that once inhaled or swallowed, some asbestos fibers never leave the body.2

“Some asbestos fibers may bypass…your body’s natural defenses…and lodge deep within your lungs. Those fibers can remain in place for a very long time and may never be removed.”

Source: American Lung Association

Anyone involved in naval or commercial shipbuilding before the E.P.A. implemented its final, wide-ranging asbestos ban in 1989 could have been exposed to vast amounts of asbestos—even the family members of employees, as well as civilian visitors to Brooklyn Navy Yard and its successor corporation.

“Generally, those who develop asbestos-related diseases show no signs of illness for a long time after exposure.”

Source: National Cancer Institute (NIH) 3

Brooklyn Navy Yard Today

When the City of New York purchased Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1968, it expected that the former military facility would continue constructing ships. 

After New York City acquired the Yard, the municipality leased the property to Seatrain Shipbuilding, a private, for-profit business. Seatrain went on to construct four large crude-oil carriers—among the largest vessels ever built at Brooklyn Shipyard.

Shipbuilding gets decommissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

However, Seatrain ceased operations in 1979. 

With Seatrain closed, the City of New York considered other uses for its lands. Gradually, the space was transformed into a mixed-use private manufacturing and commercial site, occupied by businesses of all kinds.

While several historical buildings remain on the former grounds of Brooklyn Navy Yard, the City of New York has hired asbestos abatement companies to clear the yard of contaminants. To date, the city has spent millions of dollars hiring contractors to remove asbestos-affected materials.

Despite New York’s massive expenditures, asbestos at Brooklyn Navy Yard is yet to be eradicated.

AsbestosClaims.Law is your comprehensive resource for all things asbestos, including info on health and compensation for Air Force Veterans and other former Service Members. We hope this is helpful and are grateful to all who have given of themselves to defend us all.

If you have any additional questions or concerns related to asbestos, check out our website and Youtube page for videos, infographics and answers to your questions about asbestos, including health and safety, asbestos testing, removing asbestos from your home and building, and legal information about compensation for asbestos injuries.

And if you believe that you were exposed to asbestos, or have been diagnosed with an asbestos illness, you could be entitled to significant compensation—money you could use to cover the costs of asbestos removal services, pay for medical treatment, and preemptively protect your physical well-being. 

All without filing a lawsuit.

If you’d like help with filing a claim, please get in touch by email at [email protected], or call or text us at (833) 4-ASBESTOS (427-2378) or (206) 455-9190. We’ll listen to your story and explain your options. And we never charge for anything unless you receive money in your pocket.

1 National Cancer Institute (NIH), Asbestos Fact Sheet.
2 American Lung Association, Asbestos, How Asbestos Impacts Health (updated 2022).
3 National Cancer Institute (NIH), Asbestos Fact Sheet.