Breaking the ships

Ship breaking is a one of the toughest jobs in the world for human as well as environment. The ships are dragged onto the beach and then dismantled — it is the cost-efficient way of disposing of the world’s growing number of unwanted ships. What is bad is that over 92 percent of the world’s annual crops of around 700 condemned ships now end their lives on the beaches of South Asia — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Thousands of laborers are employed to take the ships apart by hand for scrap metal. Every part of huge ships is recycled right down to the brass bell and other memorabilia for sale. Even the cow dung from the cattle carriers end up in market for sale. The workers – humans – are exposed to numerous risks like falls, fires, explosions and contact with various kinds of toxic chemicals. Some time even electricity is not used. What little technology that exists is often rudimentary and unsafe. Sometimes workers do not even possess gloves to stop their hands being cut by the huge lengths of sheet metal, which are sent to scrap yards.

Every ship can pose a serious environmental threat even if empty. A typical tanker contains heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and zinc in the paint of its hull – much of it intended to kill barnacles and other life that may try to adhere to the ship’s belly. Other hazardous compounds used as antifouling agents include tributyltin, which is toxic to nerve cells and can accumulate in the blood, liver, kidney and brain. Polychlorinated organic compounds, which have been linked to cancer and liver damage, can be found in the insulation of old electrical cables. And asbestos litters old ships as a fire retardant.

The ship material causes asbestosis, scarring of the lungs, which causes breathing difficulties. It also causes mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs that develops 20 to 40 years after inhalation of asbestos fibers and kills 75 percent of its victims within one year of diagnosis.

Some developed countries are beginning to take steps that indicate that they are aware of their global responsibilities. A European consortium is planning to build a new scrapping facility in the Netherlands to try to cope with the influx of ships, for example. A new type of environmentally friendly ship-recycling yard called an Eco Dock is being. Touted as a ‘zero pollution’ facility, this multi million dollar yard aims to use about one fifth of the workforce of a typical South Asian shipyard to scrap ships more safely and much faster than is currently possible. But most of the countries are still sending their ships to South Asia for breaking.

Ship-owners and fleet-owning countries do little to fulfill their obligations towards environmentally sound ship breaking. Why? Because sending them to under developed countries where cheap labor abounds is economical. But it not only underpaid and dangerous for workers, environmental groups claim that the whole process causes too much pollution. Ship dissection exposes their cavernous holds, spilling pollution onto the tidal flats.

It is not right for developed countries to keep exporting ships around the world to be scrapped. Every country should scrap its own ships. Dismantling and recycling activity should be undertaken in properly regulated conditions with human life and environmental considerations fully protected. And, ships should be made safe in the first place.

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