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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, anti-mine 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 says.
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 63-year-old navy pensioner says.
He asks that his name not be published because he doesn’t want all of his acquaintances to know about his illness.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 sleeping quarters. The conditions were terrible, like living in an apartment that’s being torn down,” says 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.
"I had patients with mesothelioma and lung cancer," he says.
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 long-term 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,” explains 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.
3D Graphic: Vangelis Nakas/ This video describes how asbestos fibers are inahled and attack the lungs.
“They had no protection. They carried out repairs in clouds of asbestos,” says lawyer Silina Pavlakis, who has represented patients in Greece and the US with the Pavlakis & Moschos law firm.
“We were in the dark,” stresses retired officer Spyros Kolovos, who had worked as a welder during his service and was part of the delivery team for a US ship. In 2005 he came down with a persistent fever and thought the worst until it abated and a biopsy came out negative. “I was terrified that I was on my way out,” he says. He had already lost two colleagues to cancer.
Able to withstand heat and noise waves and with low electrical conductivity, abundant and cheap asbestos was a popular material in warship building all over the world.
“It was used in engine rooms, in flanges, soundproofing and insulation in accommodation areas,” explains Dr Anastasios Travlos, board chairman of Plinios SA, a company that conducts studies for tracing asbestos and other harmful materials in structures in Greece and abroad.
Naturally occurring asbestos can be found in rocks and crumbles into fine fibers when rubbed, fibers that can be up to 50 times finer than a human hair. On the ships, these fibers were released into the atmosphere as friction and time ate away at the material. “When a large quantity is released into the air it looks like a cloud, but most of the time you can’t see them at all,” explains Travlos.
On old warships asbestos was found in cords and textiles, but also in fiber form stored in large sacks to be used as insulation with plaster. Those who worked in the engine rooms and those who built accommodation sustained the greatest exposure, but the fibers could also travel throughout the ship via its air vents.
Travlos explains that crews tasked with removing asbestos from ships and other installations today wear special protection gear and take a lot of precautions. The asbestos is wetted down to reduce dust and workers wear marks and hazmat suits which are discarded after the shift. In some cases they even wear disposable underwear.
These same procedures are also explained in a 26-minute training video produced by the US Navy and seen by Kathimerini. It was made in 1980, when Greeks were still handling the material with bare hands, according to testimony.
In one lawsuit, a retired Greek naval officer described to the court in defense of his ailing colleague’s case some of the work carried out during the takeover of an American warship: “All of the old pipes were torn out and replaced with new ones. Both the old and the new were insulated with asbestos. We installed the new ones with bare hands, using mortar with asbestos and sheets of asbestos and molding it around the pipes.”
Asked by Kathimerini about safety procedures, the Hellenic Navy General Staff responded that “briefings on matters of health and safety in the workplace are held through seminars, presentations, printed material and now online as well.”
In June 2014, however, a retired second officer and engineer (who did not want his name made public) sent a letter to the Union of Retired Hellenic Navy Officers asking why seamen who had worked on ships with asbestos were not informed of the risks.
The officer who wrote it was diagnosed with colon cancer but, as he said in the letter, doctors found extensive pleural thickening on his lungs that suggested exposure to asbestos.
In his letter, the retired officer conceded that he was not the only navy officer exposed to asbestos over the course of several years but asked why annual checkups for active officers did not pay special attention to this factor and why officers were not informed of the hazards.
American lawyer Mitchell Cohen started taking on the cases of patients who had developed illnesses from asbestos exposure in 1981. He gradually expanded his scope to the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Turkey and Malta. “I have represented more than 2,000 individuals in the US and around the world,” he said via Skype. Over the past decade, he has worked with the Pavlakis & Moschos law firm on similar cases regarding retired Hellenic Navy officers.
After being hit by a barrage of lawsuits, the American companies that built equipment with asbestos in old US warships went bust. Part of their assets were frozen and this capital is now managed by committees made up of insurers and judges.
Up until 2008, these committees would also review demands for compensation in cases of nonfatal illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But the funds have dwindled, and now only applications by patients with cancer of the lungs or intestines are considered.
Cohen explained that the compensation is usually paid to beneficiaries within 30 months of their application. “It makes no difference whether the applicant is a Greek, a Turk or of any other nationality. The method is the same,” he said.
This was the path taken by retired officer Giorgos Georgaras, who was part of a crew taking delivery of a US Navy ship in the early 1960s.
“Asbestos was placed around the pipes in the form of gauze. If you had the misfortune to sleep in the top bunk near the vents, you would breathe it in as it became dry and brittle,” he says, adding that he considers himself among the lucky ones as he has pleural thickening that has not developed into cancer.
In the United States, the statue of limitation for compensation claims expires three years after diagnosis. Georgaras, Kolovos and their other colleagues managed to meet the deadline.
“For the rest, either the deadline had expired or their medical condition did not justify compensation.”
According to Greek legislation, the right to claim damages is written off five years after the date of diagnosis or five years after the death of the patient, in the case that the family takes action after the event.
In late 2015, the three-judge First Instance Administrative Court of Athens ordered the state to pay compensation to a retired officer with mesothelioma in a decision that cannot be challenged.
The officer had spent five days at the Athens Naval Hospital two years earlier suffering from acute shortness of breath, a heavy chest and an inexplicable feeling of fatigue. During his service, he worked as an engineer on American-built destroyers, including the Kountouriotis and the Navarino.
“He was forced to handle asbestos materials with his bare hands, to rub them, cut them, tear them and punch holes in them,” said a colleague testifying at the trial.
The representative acting for the state told the court that, according to a presidential decree from 1997, uniformed personnel of the armed forces are exempt from directives regarding the protection of workers from asbestos exposure.
The court, however, ruled that the armed forces had a duty to ensure – as far as this is possible – personnel safety, as the effects of asbestos exposure were public knowledge as far back as 1980. The judges also said there was a causal connection between the mesothelioma and the retiree’s exposure to asbestos during his service.
“It was the first time a Greek court acknowledged the existence of asbestos in Hellenic Navy warships, that these people had not been informed of the hazards and that requisite safety measures had not been taken,” says Giorgos Moschos, who represented the retired officer.
The lawyer explains that the decision may pave the way for similar cases but stressed that each is examined separately.
All of the American-built destroyers that were given to Greece have been decommissioned, with most put out of service in the early 1990s, but the removal of asbestos from their structures continues today. Indicatively, in January 2015, a tender was launched worth 30,000 euros for the removal of asbestos from heat insulation systems on old warships.
“All of these people feel a great amount of pride for having served in the navy,” says Moschos. “What they feel about their service, though, is something entirely different from what the state had a duty to do. These people put their lives on the line and were not granted the care and protection they deserved.”
The lawyer’s words were confirmed by the stance of his client as well. The 63-year-old retired officer, whose case is still pending in the Greek courts, remained calm and collected throughout our discussion despite his health problems.
“I would like justice at some point,” he says. “Because no one informed me of the dangers I was exposing myself to by working on those ships.”