Deadly legacy of asbestos in navy ships from US
Kathimerini speaks to retired Greek servicemen seeking answers, damages after falling seriously ill, and to the experts who advise them
He was 14 years old when he left his village in Epirus in northwestern Greece and joined the Hellenic Naval Academy. It was the first time he saw the sea. He went on to serve on anti-torpedo, antimine and water-carrying craft. The conditions of service on the first ships he was posted to determined the rest of his life. “The chemotherapy is like being dumped from a plane onto rocks – excruciating pain,” he told Kathimerini.
In 2004 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and in 2009 with lung cancer. “The doctors told me it was largely due to inhalation of fumes from toxic paints and the asbestos,” the 63year-old navy pensioner said.
He asked that his name not be pub- lished because he doesn’t want all of his acquaintances to know about his illness. He hopes the cancer will stabilize. He has regular checkups every six months and breathing is a chore as he’s already had his right lung removed.
It was 1972 when he found himself, along with other Greek naval officers, in San Diego in the USA to take delivery of the Kountouriotis. The destroyer formerly called USS Rupertus (DD-851) had fought in Korea and Vietnam before coming into Greek hands, as was the case with other such vessels that were part of American aid in the 1950s-70s period. The ship needed extensive repairs, but one of the basic materials it contained was asbestos, now known for its harmful properties.
“It was in the engine room but also in the pipes that ran through our sleep- ing quarters. The conditions were terrible, like living in an apartment that’s being torn down,” said the retired officer, who is now seeking damages from the Greek state.
His is one of several pending cases. Over the past decade, dozens of retired Greek naval officers have been compensated by the US for exposure to asbestos. In 2015, a Greek court ruled against the Greek state for the first time in a suit filed by a former officer who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, awarding him 250,000 euros.
Having spoken to former servicemen and the doctors who examined them, as well as with their lawyers in Greece and the United States, Kathimerini can now reveal unknown aspects of the ordeals suffered by retired Hellenic Navy officers who served on old American-built destroyers. None of them had been officially briefed on safety measures or warned about the dangers to which they were exposed.
Constantinos Vergos, a former director at the Athens Naval Hospital’s lung clinic, spotted the first suspicious cases among retired navy officers in 1994. Most were engineers and electricians who came into direct contact with asbestos, which has very fine fibers that enter the respiratory system and cause inflammation of the tissue layers (pleura) lining the lungs.
“It’s painful. The pleura transmit pain in a way that the rest of the lung does not,” said Vergos, who retired in 2009 with the rank of rear admiral.
In response to a question from Kathimerini regarding illnesses linked to asbestos exposure, the Hellenic Navy General Staff said that the corps’ public health authorities have “not noted an increase of asbestosis or mesothelioma compared to Greece’s broader population so as to attribute illnesses of this form exclusively to a career in the Navy.” The response added that comparative data are being drawn from all of the armed forces’ health services, as well as from civilian hospitals.
However, according to evidence seen by Kathimerini, a search of patients’ records at the lung clinic of the Athens Naval Hospital in the 1998-2011 period found nine cases of mesothelioma (an aggressive form of cancer), one of asbestosis (lung disease that leads to longterm problems and possibly cancer) and 118 cases of lung cancer. One of the mesothelioma files mentioned that the patient was exposed to asbestos on a daily basis for eight years, as he was posted in ships’ supply holds.
Greek law recognizes mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer as a result of asbestos inhalation as a job-related illness.
“Numerous studies have proved that asbestos is almost the exclusive cause of mesothelioma,” explained Vergos.
It usually takes 20 or even more than 30 years after exposure for the first symptoms to appear, and once mesothelioma is diagnosed average life expectancy is three years.
The unnamed Hellenic Navy officer who spoke to Kathimerini is seen in a photograph from 1973, standing beside the destroyer Kountouriotis.