The asbestos problem on board seagoing vessels is far from being solved. This has been demonstrated by asbestos findings on ships even of recent construction date for which the shipyards have certified that no asbestos or materials containing asbestos were used during construction. Nearly 200 participants shared their challenges and solutions with respect to health consequences, the legal situation and cleanup options at BG Verkehr's online Maritime Shipping Industry Conference, which took place on 10 March 2021.
The scope of the problem
The consequences of asbestos exposure are well documented. In 2019 alone, 1,671 people died in Germany suffering from asbestosis, lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma due to occupational exposure. For comparison: In the same time period, 884 people died from all other occupational diseases combined and 497 people died as a result of occupational accidents. Because of the long latency of on average 38 years, asbestos-related diseases will remain an issue for a very long time. Maybe in 20 to 30 years, the number of cases can be expected to decrease.
Asbestos on board seagoing vessels
Unfortunately, there is still no worldwide ban on asbestos. Furthermore, the global production figures show that the hazardous material is still in use in many regions of the world. In maritime shipping, asbestos also remains a long-term hazard. On ships flying the German flag, the Accident Prevention Regulations for Maritime Shipping (UVV See) prohibited the use of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials in July 1, 1990. However, asbestos materials may have been used on ships built before this date. If these materials do not pose a risk to the health of the crew on board, they may remain on board.
The international SOLAS Convention (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) has banned the use of asbestos or materials containing asbestos on merchant ships worldwide only since January 1, 2011. Therefore, on ships built for foreign flags, the use of asbestos or asbestos-containing materials may have occurred to that date.
The experts at the conference had various explanations for how asbestos-containing material comes on board even comparatively new ships. For instance, asbestos-free certificates should be treated with caution, because in many countries asbestos is still used in products without being declared. In some cases, it is unknown in which products asbestos is still present, and in other cases asbestos-free certificates are issued without prior testing. Another gateway is the global supply of spare parts. Spare parts and components containing asbestos are still on the market in many countries. If such parts are installed during a repair stop, an originally uncontaminated ship may suddenly have asbestos on board.
What to do?
If there is asbestos on board, ship owners should take the necessary steps and the right course of action at an early stage. If the asbestos findings permit this, for example if they are in gaskets or pipe insulation, then a proactive concept for replacement is required. If there is acute danger from loosely bound asbestos or due to extensive use in superstructures, then ship owners should involve an expert and have her or him determine the urgency and scope of remediation. A compilation on the obligations of the ship owner together with additional background information from the BG Verkehr can be found here.