Risks Associated With Ship Breaking in Asia

Ship-breaking is the process tearing down old ship vessel structures either for reuse or for disposal. Dismantling activities include the processes of removing all the gears from ship equipments, cutting and recycling of the materials. These activities are contacted at pier, dry dock areas or at dismantling slips. The activities of ship breaking pose threats to the environment, safety and health concerns for working people. In Asia old ships containing hazardous waste materials are being cut up with bare hands, open beaches and under poor working conditions. Metals and chemical from ship infrastructure contain; Lead asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), outbreak of fore, excessive noise and hazardous chemicals that make up the ship parts. Labour categories include foremen, fitters, gas cutters, crane operators, truck drives and sweepers. Hazards linked to ship breaking activities include intoxications emitted from dangerous substances and accidents at the yards.

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Workers are exposed to risky working conditions at the docks in such a way that the rooms the activities take place are enclosed, processes of removing paints are life threatening, activities of metal cutting and disposal, removing oil and cleaning of tanks, welding operations are extremely hazardous conditions to human life. Other activities such as compressing gas, bilge and ballast water removal, moving heavy cranes, gears, and heavy equipments for material handling and use of ladders and scaffolds are among life threatening activities that take place around the beaches. Workers are not adequately trained to deal with the metals, they not given proper clothing, inadequate fire protections like fire extinguishers and they also lack rescue and first aid tools to respond to the emergencies (U.S. Dep. of Labor 2001).

Ship breaking activities include cutting ship metals with oxyacetylene or oxygen-LPG that are touched by workers with bare hands without proper protection equipment. The parts that cannot be recycled are dumped into the sea or left lying open on the beach soil and later cause hazardous effects to human health and the environment. Workers are constantly exposed to poor working conditions and no formal training offered to protect them from hazardous substances. Workers left to suffer negative impacts related to exposure to the dangerous environment. With all the shipwreck activities of various degrees of dismantlement, holes from hulls lye along the beaches, workers can easily injure him. The ship yards compose various metals from cut steel plates, gas cylinders, various parts of ship hulls and old shears. Since a lot of manpower is employed in this area, each one of them tries to find angle to cut and they keep moving in different positions each time. All the movements expose workers to dangerous working conditions. Based on the Mumbai finding, no workers was reported to be wearing helmet, workers constantly inhale toxics released from torch cutting, there is also instances of steals plates and pieces fall aimlessly from ships and shears and the workers do not even wear protective gloves and boots. It’s clear that workers are not protected at all and the government should step in to implement new regulations if the ones in place are not as effective (Greenpeace 2003, p.7).

Marine contaminants

Marine contaminants contain water, sediments and biota. All this contaminants contain bacteria and viruses revived form human activities at the coast. Other dangerous contaminations are heavy toxic metals and organo-chlorine residues (IAEA 1990).


Asian being agricultural region, a number of pesticides finds their way into the waters. Recent research reveal that about 55,000tones of pesticides are found in India, 11,000 tones in Pakistan, 3, 000 in Bangladesh and 2,800 tones found in Sri Lanka. Most of these pesticides accumulate in the sea. Most of these pesticides do not decompose at all; they end up lying in the coastal marine environment. Most of the rivers in India flow eastwards passing through many agricultural lands thereby receiving more organic orgonochloride residues collected from the fields. Pesticide concentrations in the waters ppm rages from Beta-BHC ND-1.80, Gamma- BHC 0.15-1.37, Aldrin 1.94 -17.9, Alpha-BHC 0.04-0.16, Dieldrin 0.25- 0.086, and PCBS-ND (Sivalingam 1979). (p.11)

Health effects

Ship workers mostly consume sea foods that are already contaminated from the deposits we have seen above. Contaminated sea foods are highly associated with gastro-intestinal diseases that are hazardous to human health. Bangladesh reported an outbreak of diarrhea caused by Salmonella contamination. The contaminations were composed by bleaching powder. And also in Sri Lanka diarrhea cases and viral hepatitis frequently break out in the country’s coastal regions. The bacterial and the viral infections derived from human faeces, through the coastal food chains. So, fish caught this oceans are already contaminated with oil and chemical deposits. Workers at the docks may opt to eat sea fish and expose their health to hazardous conditions (Gupta 1990, p.32) (Roy 2003).

Environmental impacts of ship breaking

Though ship breaking is seen to be a profitable business, a number pf environmental and health hazards are connected to it as well. Total number of scrapped metals from ship breaks weigh between 5,000 to 40,000 tons of which composes 95 per cent of steal and about 10 to 20 tones of paint that contain cadmium, organotins, arsenic, zinc, lead and chromium. Other waste from ship breaks include sealants containing PCs that weigh 7.5 tones of asbestos and some several litres of oil such as [engine oil, bilge oil, grease and lubricants]. The metals are cut in an open with bare hands that’s expose the workers and the environment to health hazards. These activities are dangerous to the people living near the beaches and to the marine environment as well. Persistence Organic Pollutants (POP’s) are chemicals that remain in the environment for longer periods and become distributed worldwide through food chains that are accumulated in the fat tissues of livings organisms. When these toxics are passed on, they adversely affect wildlife, humans and the environment. Diseases derived from contaminated sea foods that affect human beings are cancer and other diseases we have seen above. Sources from researchers in Bangladesh reveal that ship breaking activities are a source of lethal POP problems but as we have seen above, other conditions cause marine pollutions agrobased products, we can not completely rely in POP as the major cause of marine pollution (Hossain & Mahmudul, 2008, online) (Ronning 2000) (Kureishy 1985, p.183).

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Asbestos is a component used as a heat insulator in old ships. No proper disposal mechanism has ever been put in place; workers and the environment are subjected to the asbestos fibres. Exposure of workers to this fibre through inhalation causes cancer and asbestosis. As the activities are contacted on the open beaches, fibre and flocks travel across the open air. Workers are constantly exposed to the risk because they take out asbestos insulation substances with their bare hands (Hossain & Mahmudul, 2008, online.)

Heavy metals

Electrical equipments, paints, coatings and anodes are among the heavy metals that originate from ship breakings. The metals are reaped apart with no protective precautions. Exposure to these metals causes cancer of the lungs and the skin, kidney diseases, liver/bladder conditions and destruction of blood vessels (Hossain & Mahmudul, 2008, online).

The heavy concentration of metals in India marine range from ppm wet weight (Cu) 2.12-31.95, (Mn) 3.01-6.99, (Zn) 7.78-367.09, (Fe) 36.36- 426.49, (Ni) ; ND (Hg) 0.23-3.12, (Cd) 0.69-5.99 and (Pb) 4.27-31.87. Data collected from India marine metal; samples show that the concentrations of heavy metals such as Hg, Cd, Cu and Pb were found on several fish in the ocean. The data reveals that most of the metals dissolves in water, gets suspended and the contents settles in the estuarine region of the River Ganges. The detailed results show that about 85% of dissolved metal settles within the river and only 15% of the residue is left to flow out. 10 percent of it gets suspended and later settles within estuary. 50% of river water forces its way into the river to mix with sea water and only $40 % percent of it flows out to the open Bay of Bengual (NIO, 1986). (Greenpeace 1999).

Based on findings completed on Thailand, results reported heavy mercury concentration in some of the fish from Andaman Sea. Bangladesh also reported heavy concentration of metals and metalloids in a number of estuarine fish for examples K, Ca, Mn, Ni, As, Br, Sr and Rb. Whereas Pakistan, the waters had a high concentration of Zn, Fe and Pb. Almost all the Asian waters reported high concentration of heavy metals that were easily dissolved in water and taken in by fish that were consumed by people (Sivalingam 1982, p. 200) (Foster & Wittman 1987, p.84) (Hossain 2002, p. 860).

Oil Pollution

Oil remnants get spilled over in the process of breaking the ship. When the oil spills find their way into the sea and are left floating along the seashore and this causes environmental damage such as reduction of light density under the water surface that hinders with the process of photosynthesis. Oil floats on water that interferes with the natural gaseous exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide as a result harming aquatic life. Birds are also affected by the oil spills coating their feathers causing buoyancy and insulation loss. Wide spread of oil spills is also reported to cause mortality in mammals, fish, worms, mollusks, crabs and other sea organism (Hossain & Mahmudul, 2008, online) (Naqvi et al 1979, p.30).

Physiochemical properties of seawater

Ship breaking activities exhume toxic concentrations of marine organism due to increased PH levels in the sea water and ammonia that pollute coastal area and its water environs. Extensive mechanical activities along the beaches speeds the rate of seashore to wear out resulting to high turbidity of seawaters. From lab reports, deposits collected from sea waters revealed that there was a high concentration of DO and BOD on floating materials. In the process of ship breaking, various scraps spill over the surface and get mixed with the sand. The scrapped metals lye idle on the sea shores or even left to rust in the soil. Continuous reckless disposal of these metals together with heavy human and mechanical activities exposes the beach soil to erosion, water sediments and sea water turbidity (Hossain & Mahmudul, 2008, online) (Hossain 1986, p.462).

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)

Quite a number of PAHs find their way into the sea water. Health hazards amounting from this toxins come from workers breathing in fumes derived form activities of torch cutting, paint smouldering and when wastes are carelessly burned. When the PAHs are exposed to their air, they collect in a dust form and sediments, tissues and life forms. After that, anyone available at the contaminated area will get the toxics through inhaling and acquire it through food chain. PAHs have been reported to cause very bad tumours since consumed PAHs interfere with natural enzyme breakdown thereby causing infections to the lungs, skin, intestines and the stomach. Toxic substances released have been reported to cause skin cancers (Greenpeace 2003, p.9).

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Ship body parts consist of anti-fouling paints. When the body part is broken part emits tributyltin (TBT) a toxic substance that kills living organisms when exposed to the environment. TBT when left to flow in the ocean waters, disrupts endocrine system of marine fish such that male characteristics may develop in female marine snails, impairs immune system of the marine organism. There is also a reported malfunction of shellfish’s shell from TBT exposure. Antifouling paints also effects the eye, skin and lungs and almost every ship breaking workers is reported to be have acquired either one of them (Greenpeace 2003, p.10) (Adam 1999, p. 26).

Acute poisoning

Poisoning from toxic substances has been also reported for causing cardiac arrhythmia, coma and respiratory depressions. Exposure to POPS may cause retardation of fetal growth, teratogenesis, and infertility for the workers that get exposed aldrin and dieldrin. The pesticides are also reported to have been causing cancer, particularly DDT that is associated with breast cancer and dieldrin to adrenal glands. Other POPs side effects are nausea, eye disease such as allergic conjunctivitis, blepharitis and retinal angiopathy, sleep alteration and liver damages (Maruf 2006, p.28).


Asbestos is a substance used in engine rooms as is best thermal insulation and fire-resist properties. Asbestos becomes a threat to human health if inhaled because when dispensed, easily breaks into fine fibre and suspends itself in the air for long periods. The inhaled substance causes asbestosis, lung cancer and mesotheelioma. Workers remove asbestos from ships without any training, use of protective respirators and equipment or even decontamination facilities that put them at great risks. After removal from the ship, these substances are carelessly disposed exposing people to the toxics. Since asbestos remain suspended in the in the air for longer periods. Workers carry them along in their clothes back home further distributing the toxics to a larger population (Greenpeace 2003, p.10). We cannot completely overly on the ship breaking activities to be the major pollutant in the Asian coastal regions. We can also see that Asian being agricultural country, a lot of agro-based industrial waste flow into the waters. Uncontrolled and continuous flow of domestic and industrial sewages into the ocean damages the coastal environment and ecosystem. This sewage waste either flow directly or through estuaries with remnants of pesticides, nitrogenous compounds, PCBs, heavy metal toxics and insecticides. Some of the Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and the western part of Malaysia are close to the oil tanker route that passes from Middle East to Far East and Japan. These tankers discharges such as oil spills and smoke pollutes the coastal areas. The untreated sewage flows that flows into the ocean creates large amounts of bacteria and viruses and hampers sea foods (Gupta 1990, p.11) (Chowry 2003, p.4).

Ship breaking in Mumbai is controlled by Mumbai Port Trust that leases plots to private companies. The authority supervises activities of the private firms to make sure that they adhere to laws and regulations to prevent further toxic substances are released in the water. The port authorities should pull out the ships that do not ships that do not comply with the regulations. Based on the high pollution in Bangladesh coastal regions, law regulators do not adequately monitor ship breaking; otherwise there would be no more pollution. However, little efforts are put in place to privatise ship break yards and offer leases for only 10 years. Mumbai Port Trust actually offers incentives to ship breakers who finish part the breaking activities fast, how would the same people care about disposal procures if incentives are offered to fast breakers? The port authority should instead offer incentives to ships that safely dispose their scrap metals. This measure would increase safety of the workers, improve health and environmental conditions (Greenpeace 2003, p.5) (Babum 2002, p.33)

In order to minimum sea water pollution associated with ship breaking activities, scrap ships that carry with then asbestos should be subjected to strict regulations, the authorities manning the yards should not be reluctant with ship break owners. Asia should borrow some of the regulations from Netherlands to clean up the beaches and provide safe working conditions of the workers. Since asbestos are very toxic substances, Ministry of foreign affairs recommends (1998) recommends that the removal of the substance should only take place under the “Asbestos Removal Decree” that is compliance with applicable prescriptions that favour Conditions of Places of Work Act and Policy Rules of the same (Ministry of Social Affairs , 1997) (Greenpeace 2001) (Khan 1985).

In the Working Act contains regulations that would protect workers from asbestos exposure by providing medical, technical and organizational measures that would protect workers from the harm. To minimise asbestos disposals, ships registered for scrapping must be checked to make sure the company is warranted for asbestos inventory. Workers should be availed special breathing equipments that would protect them from inhaling asbestos and the workers should be contacted under containment. The concerned department should regularly inspect asbestos ships and the air around the place to make sure it’s free of asbestos. Netherlands supervises its asbestos ships to make sure that removal and disposal of the wastes adhere to safety regulations. Asia should follow this example to make its coastal yards free from pollutants (Locher 2001) (International Labour Organization 2001).

Oil pollutions

Ship breaking activities spill oil from tankers a circumstances contributing to oil pollution. In Netherlands, environment protection license is acquired by these forms to make sure that they strictly comply by the regulation. The oil pollution preventive measures require all ship breaking activities done on the dry dock in order to control oil spillage. Asia should do the same; it should not scrap the ship and let the oil flow into the marine

Fire threats

Torch-cutting operations can lead to explosions where fuel residues are left on the tankers. Asia should help minimise fires and explosions by emptying fuel tankers before ship can be scrapped and also avoid cutting ships with oxyacetylene but instead use hydraulic cutter. The concerned authorities should thereafter issue gas-free certificate that will make ship breakers to act responsible.

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Careless burning of scrap metals especially plastic (PVC) insulated cables emits dangerous toxic chemicals such as dioxins and furans that later cause cancer and birth defects. When PCBs are heated also produce toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated dibenzofurans and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, toxic to human inhalation. Asia ship breakers should use

Hydraulic cutter that is proved to be safer and does not emit dioxin rather than open flames that easily causes explosions. Cables should be gathered at one place after removing them from containers and immediately transported to the special shipping companies rather than left to lye around for longer periods or even carelessly burning them. Yards for ship breaking should have water-proof floors that will prevent oil spillage and other contamination finding their way into the waters. The waters collected on the water-proof floors should not be disposed to the water instead delivered to appropriate processing companies (DNV 1999) (U.S office of Tech. 1989, p. 229) (Bohmann 2001) (International Labour Organization 2001) (DNT 1999).

In conclusion extensive human and mechanical activities such as oil spillage, metal rust, grease balls and high turbidity of the sea water, are among the most critical pollutants along coastal regions caused by ship breaking. Sea water PH has risen due to these pollutants together with high concentrations of ammonia, oils and lubricant. Ship break employer should take considerable measures to protect their employees rather than caring about making money. Harbour authorities should constantly supervise the activity in areas of ship breaking to make sure that workers are subjected to good working conditions and proper disposal of the scrapped metal parts. Workers should always be supplied with protective equipments such as gloves, gumboots, helmets and protective clothing would protect them from inhaling toxic asbestos fibres and other harmful substances.

List of References

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  5. DNV 1999, ‘Decommissioning of Ships, environmental Protection and Ship Demolition practices. Report No. 99-3065.
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