Located in Charlestown, Mass., the Charlestown Navy Yard was among the first shipbuilding sites in the nation. It operated from 1801 to 1974, and has been known as the Boston Naval Shipyard since 1945. Like many other shipyards across the country, the Boston Naval Shipyard used asbestos.
The Secretary of the Navy opened the shipyard to construct ships for the country’s defense and to repair those that had been damaged. The USS Independence was the first vessel built at the Boston Naval Shipyard, and many other Navy ships followed. Destroyers, submarines, destroyer escorts, barrack ships, tank landing ships and motor tugs were among the ships constructed at the Boston Naval Shipyard. The shipyard was also commonly used to repair and store ships.
The Boston Naval Shipyard was active during several different wars, including the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. During the Second World War, the shipyard employed a record-high 50,000 workers. This was mostly in response to an array of attacks from German submarines that destroyed and sank countless naval vessels.
Throughout its history, the Massachusetts shipyard employed a variety of workers including shipbuilders, plumbers, machinists, electricians, sail makers, blacksmiths and carpenters. Unfortunately, many of these workers may have been exposed to the toxic mineral asbestos. Asbestos refers to a group of six minerals that were widely used for their heat resistance and insulating properties. Because of this, asbestos was used in many industries, including shipbuilding, from the late 1800s until its ban in the late 1900s. When products containing asbestos are damaged or disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air and can be inhaled into the lungs. Eventually, these asbestos fibers can cause serious illnesses, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
The Boston Naval Shipyard used asbestos extensively during shipbuilding, particularly after it began utilizing steel and metal for hulls and various other parts. According to the U.S Navy, nearly 300 asbestos-containing products were used regularly in the shipbuilding process. Although the health effects of asbestos were recorded as early as the 1920s, those working with the mineral were unaware of its dangers until the mid to late 1900s. As a result, shipbuilders, Navy veterans and naval contractors, among others, may have been exposed to asbestos fibers in dangerous amounts. Although the Navy banned asbestos use in 1973, many workers had already been exposed to the harmful mineral.
In 1974, the Boston Naval Shipyard was closed down as part of a government cost-saving plan. As the dangers of asbestos became public in the 1970s, any asbestos products left behind at the shipyard had to be cleaned up and removed properly. Several acres of the Boston Naval Shipyard are now part of the Boston National Historical Park.