Admiral Zumwalt was the youngest Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in history when he took this post in 1970 at the age of 49. He was well known for his efforts to transform the Navy from an aristocratic organization to an egalitarian institution.
During Admiral Zumwalt's tenure as CNO, asbestos-related deaths of shipyard workers escalated dramatically. According to the Sinai School of Medicine in New York, asbestos related deaths, either from asbestos or mesothelioma, grew by 47%, from approximately 1,650 to 2,420 per year. From 1970 to 1979, it is estimated that more than 20,000 tradesmen died of asbestos exposure. And many more became debilitated and were forced to stop working and take disability or early retirement.
Zumwalt himself was exposed to asbestos on many different occasions. He had served on many vessels that contained asbestos insulation. Also, he had been stationed at the Pentagon during renovation that may have stirred up asbestos dust. This would ultimately lead to him contracting mesothelioma.
In an ironic twist, Admiral Zumwalt had campaigned within the Navy to ban the use of environmentally unfriendly chemical agents and became a staunch advocate of new measures to protect the environmental safety of Navy men and women. Much of his fervor derived from his son's untimely death, from cancer, at age 42. His son commanded a river boat in a part of Vietnam where Agent Orange had been used to defoliate vegetation. Admiral Zumalt had given the command to use the defoliant while he was commander of Navy operations in Vietnam. He was convinced that his son's cancer was a result of exposure to Agent Orange.
Admiral Zumwalt had watched a virtual epidemic of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases occur on his watch as CNO. He was taking steps to try to protect Navy personnel from future environmental hazards. His statements in the congressional record are paraphrased below.
At age 78, almost 30 years after Admiral Zumwalt had assumed the position of CNO, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. After participating in a 5 kilometer run, he experienced a shortness of breath that was unusual for him. Two months later a chest x-ray showed a larger tumor in the lung and the diagnosis of mesothelioma was confirmed. At age 79, within 6 months of visiting the doctor due to shortness of breath, Admiral Zumwalt died of complications related to mesothelioma.