Toxic Materials and Hazards from Ship Breaking

Toxic hazards for engineers and workers

Scrapping a ship generates huge amount of waste – some useful while some extremely harmful. Most of the harmful wastes are extremely toxic hazardous substances, both for human and environment. Breaking a ship made of hazardous materials is an environmentalist’s nightmare. A ship breaking process involves strict regulations and laws which if broken, lead to millions of dollars in fine depending on the gravity of the accident. It is for this reason that many rich countries such as European nations send their ships to the ship yards of developing countries. There are many advantages drives them to doing this. The main are:

  • Developing countries have less stringent environmental rules.
  • Highly skillful Labor is available
  • Advantage of Cheap labor
  • No hassles related to disposing hazardous materials.
  • The overall ship breaking can be done in less than half the rate.

Keeping these advantages in mind, France once sent Clemenceau to India, a ship full of highly hazardous materials. If the same ship was to be scrapped at her own ports, it would been involved high environmental costs, excluding the occupational hazards it would create. It is quite a worrying phenomenon that many companies overlook such aspects and send such high toxic vessels to developing countries in spite of knowing the environmental and occupational hazards attached to it, simply for saving costs

oil sludge near ship breaking

The hazardous materials

Now Let’s take a look at the main constituents of these hazardous materials. The main toxics related to ship breaking are:

  • Asbestos
  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
  • TBT (tributyltin)
  • Lead and mercury
  • Waste waters

So how do these materials prove harmful?

The Toxics

A general practice of the ship yards of developing countries is that ship breaking is done mainly on the sea coast or at wide river-mouths mainly because these countries don’t have proper docking facilities. The hazardous materials mix up with the cesspool and

Flow into the sea or river water. Most of these materials are washed away to the shores and surrounding coastal areas by the waves, which leads to contamination of the soil and disturbance in the marine Eco system.

Most of these ship yards have huge garbage dumps just near the sea coasts. These garbage dumps contain toxic metal waste and persistent organic pollutants (pops) which pollutes the land and cause harm to the people living in the adjoining coastal areas.

ship breaking at alang


It is considered the main contributor for environmental pollution. Asbestos have many harmful effects on human beings. These asbestos when finds a way to the sea water sticks to the bodies of the fishes and other organisms, consumed by the human beings. This way it enters the food cycle and causes detrimental effects both on marine and human life.

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)

PCBs also find way into the food cycle in the same way as asbestos do. The disposal of PCBs is a primary environmental concern and due to this reason its manufacturing was banned in 1979. But before the ban was brought into action, around 1.5 million pounds of PCB was already sold in United States alone and thus it is still found in many older ships.

Water Waste

This is the root cause of all evils. Water waste from the ship breaking is found in number of forms. Ballast and bilge water during the time of breaking often finds it way to the sea if proper arrangements to block its flow are not made. The ballast water often contains oil, biocides and heavy metal particles such as iron, copper, chromium and chemical constituents, while bilge water contains pollutants such as oil and grease, inorganic salts, metal particles (arsenic, copper, chromium, lead, and mercury) and even toxic chemicals. Bilge water is also generated during cutting asbestos removal and metal cutting activities.

Thus, both bilge and ballast are sometimes non avoidable pollutants which neither can be treated nor rectified by environmental degradation.

ship breaking garbage heaps

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