Asbestos is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the most dangerous occupational carcinogens. Occupational cancer deaths may be caused by exposure to asbestos in more than half of cases. Asbestos causes around 255.000 deaths every year worldwide of which the vast majority are associated with work-related exposure. Although asbestos has been banned in more than 55 countries, some countries in Asia and the Middle East continue to use this material. India is the second largest user of asbestos, consuming around 350,000 tons annually.
Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals that are composed of resistant fibers to heat, electricity and corrosion. They have been used in thousands of domestic, commercial and industrial products, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, due to their thermal insulation and fire-resistant properties.
Asbestos is also one of the most common and most hazardous materials found onboard ships. It will typically be found in the vessels' engine rooms, often inserted between steel plates. A commercial vessel could contain as much as 10 tons of Asbestos Containing Materials (ACMs) in engine rooms, fuel lines, sea water lines and fireproofing material, whereas navy vessels, such as the air craft carriers São Paulo and Clemenceau, are estimated to contain as much as 900 tons of asbestos and ACMs. Despite asbestos having been banned from ships since July 2002, recent estimates indicate that it is still found in over 65% of vessels, including 50% of all new builds.
When extracted, asbestos breaks into fine fibres, which can remain suspended in the air for long periods of time, putting anyone nearby in danger of inhaling or ingesting it. If inhaled, the fibres can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis. Secondary or indirect exposure can also be as dangerous as primary exposure. Asbestos fibres can travel to the workers' accommodation through clothes, lengthening exposure to the pollutant and exposing others living in the same location. Surrounding communities can also be exposed to asbestos that is hastily dumped in landfills. Those exposed must undergo special training, wear protective equipment, and use decontamination equipment.
Inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers can become trapped in the respiratory or digestive systems of the body. They can be removed from the body, but many of them remain there permanently. Asbestos fibers accumulate in human tissue after repeated exposure, causing inflammation and damaging the DNA. This damage leads to changes in the cellular structure over time that can lead to cancerous conditions. The danger of asbestos lies in dust inhaled by people at any stage of the chain, from extraction to disposal. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases include breathing difficulty, chest pain and a range of other cancer symptoms.
Asbestos is responsible for the development of the following illnesses:
-Lung cancer, as well as ovarian and laryngeal cancer;
-Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD);
-Mesothelioma: it is a rare and aggressive type of cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure;
- Asbestosis: a progressive lung disease affecting the lung tissue, the symptoms of which are not apparent for many years.
Asbestos exposure in the shipbreaking industry
Early studies showed that shipbreaking workers potentially exposed to asbestos have an higher mortality rate due to lung cancer (and other cancers) than the general population. A study published by the European Commission in 2016 also alerts that the shipbreaking workers have an increased risk of developing asbestos-related diseases and cancer.
In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan there is a lack of capacity to safely handle and dispose of the hazardous materials that originate from the scrapping of the vessels. As a consequence, also communities surrounding the shipbreaking area are at risk of being exposed to this toxic substance. Dumped on site, asbestos is often used by shipbreaking workers, who are often unaware of the dangers, 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. South Asian business interests continue to support the extraction and import of asbestos, and local legislation has not banned its use.
A proper inventory of ACMs onboard vessels would allow for the identification of asbestos before removal, and encourage the use of certified personal protective equipment (PPE) with appropriate respiratory devices and protective clothing. Specialized training would then guarantee the safe removal of asbestos.
It is important to note that it is forbidden by international law to export hazardous waste, including asbestos, from developed to developing countries. An investigative article published in December 2020 by The Daily Star (Bangladesh) and Finance Uncovered (UK) reveals, however, how the weak regulatory system in Bangladesh is exploited by the maritime industry. False certificates claiming that the vessels are free of hazardous materials are issued by post-box companies based in offshore tax havens, making it difficult to hold the scrap-dealers, known as cash-buyers, shipbreaking yards and ship owners responsible. A decade after the Bangladeshi Government was ordered by the Supreme Court to introduce rules mandating that no vessels containing hazardous materials could be imported for scrapping purposes, vessels containing large amounts of toxic materials are still being beached in Chattogram.
Unsafe handling of asbestos has been documented at the shipbreaking yards in Chattogram, Bangladesh as well as in Alang, India. Occupational exposure in the shipbreaking sector has led to numerous workers suffering from asbestos-related illnesses. In 2017, a study seeking to map asbestosis among shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh identified that, from a group of 94 workers, 35% were suffering from asbestosis.
Despite recent research work, there is still a need for further investigation on health outcomes related to asbestos exposure within the shipbreaking sector in South Asia. Recently, in Bangladesh, more workers have started to manifest symptoms of asbestosis, such as chest pain and breathless. Asbestosis symptoms usually manifest after a period of 10 years of exposure since there is a latency of several years between the initial exposure and the outbreak of the disease. Despite their weak health condition, most of the sick workers continue to dismantle vessels to subsist and feed their families. Their affected lung capacity varies between 20-60%, most of them having their lung capacity affected by 40%. Several of the workers that have been identified as victims of asbestos are currently facing advanced phases of the disease that require urgent medical assistance and treatment, in some cases leading to early deaths between the ages of 45-50. There is an urgent need for a closer monitoring in order to early detect adverse health outcomes, as well as to conduct medical check-ups to diagnose and treat the cases causally related to asbestos within this vulnerable workforce.
Since 2009, around 7000 ships were scrapped in South Asia, causing at least 430 deaths and 354 injuries. Occupational diseases are not even registered in these statistics and are difficult to monitor.
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