Among the numerous anniversaries being celebrated in 2012, one less well known was the 60th birthday on the 3rd July of the maiden voyage by the SS United States, the largest passenger vessel ever built in the USA .
Famous for being the fastest ocean liner to cross the North Atlantic, achieving maximum speeds up to 38 knots (44 mph), she also attracted attention for containing vast quantities of asbestos as part of her unique fireproofing and insulation.
The vessel was constructed between 1950 and 1952, during the peak period of twentieth century asbestos use. Despite increasing medical evidence, there was often minimal asbestos awareness or even a deliberate disregard of the long-term fatal health risks of exposure to the fibres widely used as heat insulation in common manufacturing, engineering and construction materials.
There is a typically long gestation period of up to 50 years from first breathing in the deadly fibre dust to the final emergence of asbestosis symptoms or signs of the advanced stages of the incurable mesothelioma cancer.
The risk of fire was minimised onboard the SS United States by the complete absence of any wood anywhere in the ship’s framework, interior surfaces and accessory decoration. The ship’s superstructure consisted of the largest use of aluminium in any building / engineering project at that time. All fittings, including every item of furniture and fabrics were specially produced in glass, metal and glass fibre to ensure adherence to US Navy fireproofing guidelines.
Shipbuilding industries made considerable use of asbestos as insulation with more than 300 asbestos-containing materials installed on ships constructed up until at least the 1970s. Asbestos was commonly used in pipe lagging to insulate hot steam pipes, hot water lines and fuel lines.
Asbestos fibres were mixed in with brick and cement used on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers. Boilers contained asbestos brick and asbestos liners sandwiched between brick and steel layers. Asbestos was also installed in exhaust systems, including connectors and manifolds, rods and valves instrumentation panels such as meters and capacitors, insulation felts and adhesives.
Even outside of a ship’s engine room, asbestos could be found in electric cabling, brake linings, gaskets and packing in flanges and valves, and as a component in sealing materials. An asbestos insulation layer might cover steel decking beneath a layer of cement and floor tiles, wall and ceiling panels could also contain asbestos.
As a result of rising operating costs exceeding passenger revenue the SS United States was taken out of service on the 14th November 1969 having completed 400 voyages carrying up to 1,972 passengers in 695 state rooms at full capacity plus 1,044 crew members. The ship had also been a popular choice with many movie stars, statesmen and other celebrities at the time, including Greta Garbo, Jimmy Stewart, Sir Laurence Olivier, Presidents John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Edward VIII and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Having been permanently docked in various ports on the East coast of America under a succession of changing owners, and following the removal of most of the interior fittings for auction in the 1980s, it was only in the 1990s she was sent to Turkey to dispose of the vast quantities of onboard asbestos material. It was necessary to strip all the ship’s interiors right down to their metal bulkheads to remove every last fibre.
Since 1996 the SS United States has been docked on Philadelphia’s Delaware River with latest plans recently announced to turn the vessel – now thankfully free of all traces of asbestos – into a “waterfront destination”.