14 March 2012

WHY SHIPS ARE TOXIC: NGO Shipbreaking Platform

End-of-life ships sent for breaking to South Asia contain in their structure hazardous materials that are potentially harmful to human health and the environment. Ships that today are broken on the beaches of South Asia are highly likely to contain the following toxic materials in their structure:


Asbestos is used, particularly in engine rooms, because of its thermal insulation and fire-resistant properties and is sandwiched between steel plates in the walls or in the doors. When extracted, it breaks into fine fibres, which can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. If inhaled, the fibres can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesotheelioma and asbestosis, the symptoms of which are not apparent for many years. Asbestos fibres travel to the workers’ accommodation through their clothes, lengthening their exposure to the pollutant and exposing others living in the same accommodation. Special training, protective equipment and monitoring and decontamination facilities are required.

Dumped on site, asbestos is used by workers living beside the shipbreaking yards for construction and other use. Asbestos boards originating from end-of-life vessels are also frequently sold on the second hand market. The re-working process is very primitive and no precautions against contamination are taken.

Heavy metals

Lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc, lead, and copper can be found in many products onboard a vessel, such as paints, coating, insulation, batteries and electrical compounds. Heavy metals need to be properly disposed off. Mercury taken at high dosage can deeply harm the nervous system. Long-term exposure to lead, even to low levels, can cause irreversible learning difficulties, mental retardation, and delayed neurological and physical development.

Mineral oil

Workers can be exposed to toxic oil and fuel when they inhale the fumes released by torch-cutting on shipbreaking yards. Everyone is at risk when eating contaminated fish and drinking contaminated water. Due to poor gas-freeing operations prior to torch cutting, residue oils are also at the source of explosions killing and injuring workers on the spot.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

About 30 PAHs (out of 250) and several hundreds of their derivatives are classed as carcinogenic. Workers are exposed when inhaling fumes released during torch cutting, after torch cutting when paints continue to smoulder or when wastes are deliberately burned. The combustion of oil may for example lead to the formation of PAHs. PAHs accumulate in dust and sediment, and tissues of life forms.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are found in solid and liquid forms in equipment and materials on obsolete ships. When burned, they create some of the most hazardous substances known – dioxins and furans. While it is relatively easy to remove liquid PCBs prior to export, the use of solid PCBs in old ships is extensive with many hundreds of tonnes of PCB contaminated materials including: insulation, paints, decking, gasketry, wires and cables.


Tributyltin (TBT) is an aggressive biocide – it kills living organisms – that has been used in anti-fouling paints since the 1970s. It is considered as one of the most toxic compounds in aquatic ecosystems. TBT is responsible for the disruption of the endocrine system of marine shellfish leading to the development of male characteristics in female marine snails. It also impairs the immune system of organisms. Organotin compounds can damage human health even in small doses.

Consequences of shipbreaking pollution -

Disease and death:

Workers at the shipbreaking yards are exposed to hazardous fumes and materials. Due to the lack of protective equipment and unsafe hot work in explosive atmospheres, accidents causing death are frequent and long term exposure to toxins such as asbestos cause disease and cancer killing many more workers.

Contamination of sensitive coastal zones and surroundings:

No precaution is taken when removing the hazardous materials from the ships and the hazardous materials are often just dumped on the spot, deeply contaminating the beach sands and sediments. Also coastal waters, rivers and groundwater are heavily polluted as water currents and tides distribute the pollutants along the coast but also further away from the beach during the monsoon season. Because the yards rarely have waste reception facilities, hazardous materials such as mineral oil, heavy metals, PAHs, PCBs, and asbestos are dumped on the spot or sold on the second hand market. Despite the serious pollution and contamination caused by the shipbreaking industry in South Asia, there is no serious discussion to date about the cleaning-up of these toxic hot spots.

Loss of aquatic species and livelihoods:

The shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh is responsible for wiping out 21 species of fish and crustacean, and endangering 11 others species, according to the Marine Institute of the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. As a result, local fishermen’s livelihoods are threatened.

Illegal cutting of protected forests:

Thousands of protected mangrove trees were illegally cut down in Bangladesh to make space for new shipbreaking yards. These trees were planted to protect local communities from the devastation caused by the monsoon and the many cyclones that hit Bangladesh each year. In 2009 alone, 40.000 mangrove trees were illegally chopped down.
(Photo credits : Pierre Torset – Shipbreaking)

Source: NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

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