Doctor says those who worked at Navy Yard or served before 1975 could have been exposed to the carcinogen.

KITTERY, Maine — A doctor who treats people with mesothelioma says anyone who worked at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard or was in the Navy prior to 1975 may have been exposed to asbestos.

“All the ships were full of asbestos because it is a great fire retardant. There’s a huge concern about fires on ships, so they threw asbestos on everything,” Dr. Christian Thomas said.

Thomas is a medical oncologist and director of clinical research at New England Cancer Specialists in Scarborough, Maine. He has patients from the New Hampshire Seacoast who travel to his office for treatment.

Occasionally, Thomas will see a patient who has been exposed to asbestos because the patient’s parents worked at the shipyard or in construction and came home with the fibers on their clothing.

Thomas said that asbestos exposure does not always cause cancer in patients. If there is known asbestos exposure, patients are typically monitored. If they are found to have lung cancer, they might at that time be referred to Thomas and his team.

It takes 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos before patients begin to exhibit symptoms of mesothelioma, including fluid buildup and chest pain, according to a 2006 article titled “Malignant mesothelioma: a case presentation and review” by Timothy J. Barreiro and Philip J. Katzman, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. An X-ray or CT scan may confirm the disease, according to the article.

Colin Ruggiero is a health writer who dedicates his time to informing others about mesothelioma. He says asbestos was phased out of ships in the 1980s, but that there are thousands of people who may have been exposed to asbestos and other chemicals at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard prior to that time.

“The Shipyard was actually added to the Superfund list in 1994 after the Environmental Protection Agency realized there was extensive contamination,” Ruggiero said.

According to, the Navy used more asbestos than any other branch of the U.S. armed forces.

Navy veterans exposed to asbestos may qualify for VA benefits if they become ill. Civilians who develop asbestos-related diseases and worked for the shipyard can seek damages, Ruggiero said.

Call for more education

Heather Von St. James is a well known mesothelioma survivor and advocate who was diagnosed with the disease 14 years ago, at age 36, after giving birth to her daughter, Lily Rose.

Von St. James, who lives in Minnesota, was treated by Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Von St. James said her father was a construction worker who specialized in demolition. His car was always dusty, and Von St. James would wear his work jacket while doing chores.

Von St. James said people need to be aware of the risks of exposure to asbestos.

“I know a lot about exposure. You don’t need to be working in it all day every day,” Von St. James said. “People don’t understand how deadly it is.”

Von St. James said asbestos is still in public buildings, schools and private homes, even though spray-applied products were banned in 1989.

An example of a public building in Portsmouth known to be full of asbestos is the Thomas J. McIntyre Federal Building, which was home to several offices and the post office for over 50 years.

Material containing asbestos is not generally considered harmful to human health unless it is releasing dust or fibers into the air where they can be inhaled or ingested. That is why buildings containing asbestos have to be carefully renovated or demolished.

According to officials at the state Department of Health and Human Services, an average of 16 cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed per year between 2012 and 2016.

The age-adjusted incidence rate of mesothelioma in New Hampshire was 1 case per 100,000 people. That is consistent with what was seen nationally at the same time period.

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