Continued problems with asbestos on ships

Despite the ban on asbestos in shipping, this dangerous substance is still present on old as well as newer ships. The EU is planning a sharp reduction in the permitted levels of asbestos.

Asbestos is a health hazard that can cause a number of serious diseases, including cancer. In 2002, asbestos was banned from newly produced ships through an amendment to the Solas regulation (11-1/3-5) to reduce the risk of exposure, but despite this it continues to be used in shipping. The Swedish Transport Agency’s website refers to a Dutch study from 2011 where 95 percent of 300 ships examined had asbestos on board, some of them built after 2002. Pelle Andersson, ombudsman at Seko Seafarers, confirms the fact that asbestos is still a problem in shipping, in Sweden too.  

It often concerns older boats that were built in the 70s or earlier, but asbestos is sometimes discovered in newly built ships.

“We’ve had a number of cases involving asbestos in recent years,” he says. “It often concerns older boats that were built in the 70s or earlier, but asbestos is sometimes discovered in newly built ships.”

Asbestos is very harmful and even short exposure can be enough to have serious effects on health. If the material is sealed in, such as inside a bulkhead or encased insulation around a pipe, it is harmless as long as it remains intact. But if holes are drilled in the bulkhead to hang a tool board or if the insulation around a pipe must be removed after a leak, asbestos particles can be released into the air. It is important to make a thorough inventory and find out if there is any asbestos on board, says Pelle Andersson.  

“Some emergency work may need to be carried out and you must know whether there is any asbestos present or not. If there is, you must have the right protective equipment on board.” 

The EU plans to introduce a radical reduction of the permitted levels of asbestos in work environments. In October 2021, the EU parliament voted for a 100-fold reduction from the current level, but a definitive decision has not yet been made.

Examples of materials and places on board where there may be asbestos 

  • Insulation behind bulkheads in fittings, engine room and hold.
  • Fire insulation (fire cells) and fire protection equipment. 
  • Protective clothing and fire blankets.
  • Reinforced plastic thermal insulation on machine installations, boilers and pipelines (exhaust pipes and other hot or cold pipes). 
  • Fan spaces for fittings and machinery (bulkheads, ceilings, sound insulation), fan units and heat exchanger insulation on ventilation ducts. 
  • Interior walls, walls to evacuation routes, kitchens and food stores. 
  • In floor coverings such as levelling compounds, floor coverings in interior spaces and open decks, plastic mats, ceramic floor covering (fix and joint). 
  • Paints and plastics.
  • Friction pads for cranes, winches, windlasses and so on. 
  • Valves, flanges and gaskets. 
  • Bearings for propeller shafts and sleeves. 
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