Health, Europe

Asbestos killed 82 members of Spanish navy in last 20 years: Report

Deadly material was not banned in Spain until 2002

Alyssa McMurtry  | 05.04.2023 - Update : 05.04.2023
Asbestos killed 82 members of Spanish navy in last 20 years: Report


Over the last two decades, asbestos-related diseases have killed 82 members of Spain’s navy, according to a report published on Wednesday by El Pais.

The Spanish daily revealed Defense Ministry documents, which show 61 of the officially acknowledged deaths have occurred since 2017.

But the story dates back to the mid-20th century. After the 1953 Pact of Madrid, US President Dwight Eisenhower sent Francisco Franco’s Spain almost two dozen old warships that were built using tons of asbestos.

“Man-killer ships is what we called them,” sub-lieutenant Francisco Feal told Spanish daily El Mundo in 2014. “They were full of rats, but the worst part was the cloud of worn-out asbestos that circulated everywhere and that we breathed in for months, even years. Hundreds of us got sick, and many died of cancer. We are still paying for it today.”

Once Spain got the US ships, a local shipyard began copying the American model, employing the same asbestos that degraded under the hot weather, strong winds and humid marine environments.

In Spain, the families of victims of asbestos-related diseases who served in the armed forces are paid around €110,000 ($120,000). In the US, the average payment to veterans is an average of $1 million, according to the Mesothelioma Veterans Center.

The strong, fire-proof material was also used to build military bases. Last year, Spain paid nearly €1 million to remove 50 kilometers (31 miles) worth of pipes that were coated in asbestos from the Torrejon de Ardoz military base in Madrid.

It was not until 2002 that Spain banned the use of asbestos, although the shipyard responsible for most of the naval production said it stopped using the material in 1982.

Even so, the Spanish Armada still uses ships built before 1982.

When asbestos-containing materials are disturbed or damaged, tiny fibers can become airborne and inhaled into the lungs.

Once inhaled, these fibers can accumulate and cause a range of health problems, including lung cancer, mesothelioma (a rare cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and abdomen), and the chronic lung disease asbestosis.

All use of asbestos was banned in the EU in 2005, although several states had banned it as far back as the 1990s.

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