(Written by Wendy Laursen)
28 February 2013 - Despite a global ban, asbestos is found on ships of all ages.
Many shipowners are surprised when asbestos is found on their vessels. What might surprise them – and also many shipyards – even more is what little exposure is required to this material to cause mesothelioma – the malignant tumors in the lining of the lungs or abdomen which can result in death by slow asphyxiation.
The Australian Mesothelioma Surveillance Program and Register has recorded cases of the disease since 1980, including medical details and an occupational and environmental history for each person. The incidence of mesothelioma is generally proportional to the intensity and duration of exposure to asbestos, but three percent of known cases have experienced less than three months’ exposure, in one case only 16 hours. Mesothelioma may take 30 to 50 years after exposure to develop, but by then the sufferer can be faced with only about a year to live.
New installation or use of asbestos-containing materials on seagoing vessels has been prohibited under SOLAS Regulation II-1/3-5, with a few exceptions, since July 2002. Since January 2011 new installation has been prohibited without exception. Despite this, asbestos is still regularly encountered in such places as fire blankets, insulation, sealants, wall and ceiling coverings, and cables.
“There isn’t a particular type or age of vessel involved or a particular country or region of construction,” says Philip Rozier, Director of Marine at Lucion Environmental, a UK specialist in identification and removal of hazardous materials. “We have seen vessels built in the ʹ60s and ʹ 70s which have hundreds of tons of asbestos on board, but we have also done surveys of vessels that were built in 2012 and they’ve got asbestos on board, albeit in lesser quantities. This can be the case even though the specification was made to the shipyard that the newbuilding be asbestos-free.”
As regulations vary around the world, it is possible in some cases for a product to contain up to 15 percent asbestos without it having to be labelled as such. However, there are different types of asbestos, and there is a spectrum of risk based on (a) where it is, (b) what condition it is in, and (c) the likelihood of its being disturbed. “A lot of people choose to remove asbestos just to get it off the vessel. This is not always necessary, but management of the risk does require work,” says Rozier. “I think the biggest problem the industry faces is it doesn’t know the asbestos is present, so if they do disturb it, or it is causing problems, they don’t realize it.”
The reports produced as part of an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) can contain management recommendations. Operating in the EU means Rozier’s recommendations are based on the official requirements of a highly regulated industry, but this can vary around the world. Canada, for example, mines and uses asbestos and may have a different perspective on the risks involved.
Increasingly ports, for example in Australia and The Netherlands, have been making inspections, prompting greater interest by shipowners who ask for an asbestos-free certificate for their vessel, only to be disappointed that it is in fact not asbestos-free at all. Rozier is finding that more and more fleets of vessels are having IHMs done for them, not just vessels being readied for scrapping. “We are sometimes asked to undertake IHMs for fleets of 50 or more vessels. Shipowners are preparing for management on an ongoing basis and may use the information in their fleet renewal strategy as well as an aid to the safe recycling of old vessels.”
Rozier warns that the expertise of the person doing the onboard survey can also vary. Some receive as little as three days of training, others three years. He has seen instances of shipowners getting their IHMs redone as a result of lack of confidence in the original reports. Industry standards are required, he says, particularly as a bottleneck in surveys may occur in response to upcoming EU and IMO shipbreaking legislation, and some shipowners may be left using less-experienced surveyors.