Many ships that come to the yards are filled with the mineral asbestos, used in the 1980s and '90s for insulation on high-heat areas such as boilers and steam pipes. It has since been banned across the world for safety concerns.
In a recent study, Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE) found that almost 33% of the ship-breaking workers are affected by asbestosis, an incurable disease caused by breathing the mineral in the form of dust or fumes.
The health survey, led by asbestosis expert Dr Murali Dhar, among ship-breaking workers in Chittagong’s Sitakunda upazila, examined 101 workers in two phases and found 33 workers affected with the disease.
Of them, eight had become 60% disabled from the disease.
OSHE Vice-Chairperson Dr SM Morshed told the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh was the 31st top asbestos importing country according to a 2011 study.
The findings came from a mid-term report of the survey, which will continue until July, examining a total of 500 workers.
Apart from the ship-breakers, workers of steel factories, re-rolling mills, tin factories and cement factories, where materials from the yards are supplied, may also be facing asbestos hazards.
The thin dust of asbestos covers the surface of the lungs and cannot be removed. It causes lungs to shrink permanently. It could also lead to cancer, and a disease called mesothelioma.
“People with extensive occupational exposure to the mining, manufacturing, handling, or removal of asbestos are at risk of developing asbestosis,” said Dr Murali Dhar.
“In Bangladesh, ship-breaking workers are at high risk. Symptoms are manifesting in workers who have been working for about 10 years,” he said.
Around 50 countries have prohibited asbestos import so far, the doctor said.
OSHE data said about 793,725kg asbestos, costing over $4 million, were imported in 2015-26 fiscal year while the quantity was only 18,000kg in 2014-15. Asbestos worth over $2 million was imported in the first six months of this fiscal year.
A 2011 study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found 12% of the 104 examined ship-breakers affected with asbestos-related diseases, of which asbestosis accounted for 6%.
Knowledge of asbestos hazards was almost non-existent, the study observed.
OSHE survey team member Dr Faizul Ahsan Shuvro, an expert on asbestosis, said hospitals in Bangladesh have no equipment to treat for asbestosis, while the number of experts on the disease is only a handful.
“The government should create specialised hospitals for asbestosis,” he said; adding that the hospital of Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association in Chittagong has no facilities for asbestosis treatment.
The International Labour Organisation says more than 107,000 workers die each year from an asbestos-related disease. In addition, several thousand people die from asbestos in the environment.
International organisation Ship-Breaking Platform’s Bangladesh Coordinator Muhammed Ali Shahin told the Dhaka Tribune: “The scrap ships brought to Bangladesh were built in the 1980s and '90s. The ships’ engine rooms, decks, cabins and other portions contain asbestos.”
Shahin, who is also the programme coordinator of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a Sitakunda-based NGO, said scrap ship importers should import non-asbestos-contaminated ships and collect certificates from the exporting country’s government.
Proper asbestos disposal management systems should also be introduced as per a Supreme Court order of 2009, he added.
The World Asbestos Report, in a 2014 article, said 98% of the workforce in ship-breaking operations of Bangladesh had no knowledge of the asbestos hazard.
[caption id="attachment_13167" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Ship-breaking workers drag heavy duty electric wires across the beach at Sitakunda Rabin Chowdhury/Dhaka Tribune[/caption]
Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association’s President Md Abu Taher claimed that the ship-breaking industry no longer imports asbestos-contaminated ships.
“I do not know anything about the recent health survey of OSHE,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
One yard owner, who wished to remain anonymous, alleged that while the bigger companies might import ships after washing all hazardous materials out at the country of origin, most try to bypass monitoring and bring in dirty ships, as the washing is extremely expensive.
Md Alamgir, a former technical adviser for DNV GL International Ship Classification Society, said: “Our people are at grave risk of inhaling asbestos fibre, which is a great concern for lung diseases. Unfortunately we are not attentive enough to control the spread of asbestos fibre in the air.”
Most old ships that are scrapped in Bangladesh contain asbestos in abundance, he said. The shipyards in Sitakunda do not practise safe handling of asbestos.
The poisonous material has also spread to factories and mills, he added.
Admitting that scrap ships built in the '80s and '90s were being imported by the ship breaking industry, Shipping Ministry’s Joint Secretary (Ship Recycling) Mahbubul Islam told the Dhaka Tribune: “We allow anchoring a scrap ship at the outer anchorage to the beach after all safety agencies like the Department of Environment and the Explosives Department test them.
[caption id="attachment_44132" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Scrap ships lie on the beach at Sitakunda Rabin Chowdhury/Dhaka Tribune[/caption]
“There is no chance to beach a ship with any hazardous material.”
But since there were no regulations against asbestos, it was not being checked, he said.
“If any agency puts out a recommendation against asbestos, only then can we take into it cognisance,” he said.
The official pointed out that that asbestos was not included in any list of importable or non-importable goods in the country.