Anybody in the Navy who has more than a few grey hairs on their head will, in all probability, have been exposed to Asbestos.   Ships of the day were riddled with it, mostly in the lagging around pipes snaking along the passageways and though messdecks.    You’ll probably remember painting them, which in some cases was all that held them together. 

I remember serving on HMS Eagle in the 70s, and how the air turned a faint blue colour whenever an aircraft thumped down on the flight deck not far above the accommodation I was in.  We thought it was just dust, but I suspect it was more sinister than that. 

Anyway, I recently saw an email chain that prompted me to write this reminder.  It was from a sailor who had been a crew member of HMAS Parramatta back in the mid-60s, and therefore in a ‘high-risk’ asbestos environment.  He was initially placed on an annual screening program, then downgraded to a bi-annual program.  He stopped participating about 20 years ago as he was not showing any symptoms and believed that he was safe after 15 years of screening without any indications of asbestosis. 

He’s recently had a call from a mate, however, who also served in a destroyer in the mid 60s.  He’s just turned 75 and has been diagnosed with the disease after suffering from shortness of breath.   His story is a sad one, as told in a recent email:

“Regarding this matter and for your information I was in the 5th entry. Last February 2017, after many regular tests throughout the years I developed a cough which I could not get rid of. Subsequent tests confirmed advanced pleural mesothelioma in April.

I underwent a course of chemotherapy but despite this the mesothelioma has spread to my abdomen.  In mid February this year I was given 2 months to live because  there are no more treatment options available for me . At the moment I am at home being cared for by my wife and family and  receiving assistance from the my GP and the local palliative care team.

I had hoped, being a non smoker,  that I might have dodged the bullet, but unfortunately that is not the case.

Good luck to all the guys out there.  Get your lung health checked by at least your GP, if not your thoracic specialist.”

Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease caused by scarring of lung tissue which stems from long term exposure to asbestos.  Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, a persistent cough or chest pain.  Complications may include lung cancer, mesothelioma and pulmonary heart disease.  The particularly disturbing feature of the disease is that once you have been exposed to the trigger (asbestos) there is a ‘latency period’ that may last for years before the symptoms present.  A good article on the disease can be read here

The moral of this story is simple.  If you served on ships with asbestos, or you believe you were exposed to it in some other way,  then you should be having regular screening.   Talk to your doctor about it, and also register with DVA if you believe your exposure was service related.