The term “shipbreaking” refers to the breaking up and then disposal of a ship that is no longer in working order. The materials which are salvaged are often reused, particularly the steel pieces. Additionally, the equipment that was kept onboard is removed as well as reused. Shipbreaking used to be a highly successfully industry within the United States. Cities which contained ports had many facilities for shipbreaking, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s when numerous WWII ships were retired and no longer useful. However, during the last several decades, the demolition of ships has been outsourced to other countries where the labor is not as expensive and environmental regulations are not as strict. Today, the largest operations in regard to shipbreaking are located in Pakistan, Turkey, India, China, and Bangladesh.
Shipbreaking is a dangerous undertaking for several reasons. Several hundred accidents of a bodily nature have been reported throughout the years due to the breaking of equipment and machines. Secondly, toxins have been known to be released during the demolition process that can include PCBs and asbestos. These materials have been known to cause considerable health problems and serious conditions among the individuals who work in the industry.
Asbestos and the Shipbreaking Industry
Asbestos was widely used in shipbuilding, particularly before as well as during WWII. There are few American shipbreakers still employed in the field, but those that were may be dealing with health problems as a result of their work. If the dismantling of the ships occurred within the United States today, laws would be instituted in order to ensure controlled asbestos removal so as to maintain safety. Within developing countries where shipbreaking still commonly occurs, few regulations exist and the average worker wears little to no protective gear at all. This makes the employees highly susceptible to asbestos exposure as well as exposure to other hazardous substances. Asbestos, in particular, has been known to lead to serious conditions and diseases, such as malignant mesothelioma.
Although India has requested that the owners of ships take full responsibility for the removal of hazardous substances prior to the ship’s arrival within India’s shipyards, numerous other countries do not have any such laws. Although organizations such as Greenpeace have encouraged other countries to do the same, there has been little action when it comes to regulating the handling and removal of asbestos. Greenpeace is also encouraging the International Maritime Organization to institute mandatory laws which would regulate shipbreaking, but this has yet to take place.