Have We Underestimated the Damage Rust Can Do?

From ships to infrastructure, it’s not pretty

Wreck of Cabo de Santa Maria
Rust may seem like an annoyance to some, but its full effect can wreak havoc on everything from ships to infrastructure.
Simo Räsänen/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / January 15, 2020 7:00 am

It’s been called “the most destructive natural disaster in the modern world.” It does massive damage each year to housing around the world, while also remaining a massive obstacle for industries from the military to tourism to deal with. And there’s no easy solution — it’s not a matter of stopping it, only slowing its progress.

This menace isn’t what you might think — it’s not climate change, for one thing. No, the threat in question is something a little closer to home: rust.

A new article by Samantha Masunaga at the Los Angeles Times unnervingly lays out the ways in which rust interferes with our daily lives. Among the experts she spoke with was Jonathan Waldman, author of the book Rust: The Longest War. (He’s the source of the quote in the first paragraph.) Waldman points to rust as the source of numerous societal problems, from infrastructure to housing.

And whether you’re talking about rust’s effects on a military vessel or a cruise ship, the cost of dealing with it is substantial. “According to a 2014 report,” Masunaga writes, “the Defense Department has pegged the cost for Navy ships and vessels at $3 billion, close to a quarter of their overall maintenance expenses.” 

In a 2015 interview with WHYY, Waldman talked about the full scope of the damage rust can do. He made an interesting argument about why it’s not discussed more — namely, that its presence feels embarrassing to those tasked with dealing with it. 

I like to say that we think of rust somewhere between cholesterol and hemorrhoids. We ascribe some shame to it. Unless you’ve got a rusty old truck and you’re cool showing your buddies how rusty it is, most of us think it’s kind of embarrassing, it’s perhaps a sign that you’re not on top of everything.

And while rust on the sides of ships or bridges is easy to notice, rust can also do damage to infrastructure where it’s less visible. Consider this article about collapsing roads in Jackson, Tennessee — something that happened in part due to old pipes buried underground becoming so rusty that they collapsed.

A wise man once sang that rust never sleeps. But if this news is any indication, many of us have slept on rust — and we’re facing the consequences for it now. 

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