July 12, 2012

At sea, the dreaded C-word

Almost all seamen above a certain ago who are reading this carry a cancerous time bomb in their lungs- the ingredients of a disease that, if it explodes, will kill them quickly, in a year or two. Mesothelioma is an incurable cancer. Many of you-and I- may have also brought its chief ingredient home, clinging to our clothing and our suitcases. We may have unwittingly exposed our families to painful death.  The ingredient-asbestos- has been present in large quantities on almost all the ships we have worked on. Not that a large amount is required to kill you; a few fibres and minute particles will do that just as efficiently.

The young are not immune to it either, because asbestos- banned in fifty odd countries- is freely used in many others even today, including in India and China, the world's biggest shipbuilder. Despite amendments to SOLAS- that came into effect last year- banning its use in shipbuilding. Despite WHO's guidelines. Despite recommendations from medical experts across the world. Despite nobody disputing that exposure to asbestos can cause Mesothelioma. Despite the ILO saying that 100,000 die each year due to asbestos related diseases, 125 million people are exposed to it at the workplace today. 

Asbestos- once considered miracle material because it was hard, could be used anywhere and did not burn- was found on most ships built up to the 60's. Used extensively in paints, insulation sheets, boilers and firewalls, a ship's closed atmosphere- accommodation or engine room- meant that asbestos particles released into the internal atmosphere remained in circulation, in the air and on the surfaces around. "One US study of merchant marine seamen found that 17 percent of the men studied displayed bodily abnormalities consistent with asbestos exposure and related diseases," says a US report. That is, one in six seamen displayed symptoms of asbestos related mayhem. 

Look at the other numbers that have come out of the US, where,  according to the Florida based Mesothelioma centre, " almost one third of merchant marine seaman who passed away during World War II as a result of their occupation were not killed overseas by enemy fire or any other act of war. More than 100,000 thousand dedicated merchant mariners died many years later from illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos." 

Anybody care to put a number to how many have seamen have died or suffered since then?

The IMO's 2009 Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (that will come into force in 2015, if my memory is not shot completely) states, “An appendix to the Convention will provide a list of hazardous materials the installation or use of which is prohibited or restricted in shipyards, ship repair yards, and ships of Parties to the Convention. Ships will be required to have an initial survey to verify the inventory of hazardous materials, additional surveys during the life of the ship, and a final survey prior to recycling.” 

But this inventory, dubbed the Green Passport, and the 'Asbestos Free' certificate issued in connection, is often undermined by commercial interests. Listen to what Nick Bennett had to say in Lloyd's list in 2010- “Having spent the last eight years undertaking hazardous materials assessments on a range of vessels throughout Australasia, I can attest that I do not believe I have ever found a vessel of any type or age, including at least one new building, which does not contain some amount of asbestos-contaminated material in its plant or structure.”  

Mr Bennett adds that companies offer asbestos-free certificates “who simply do not have the expertise or necessary independence to make such attestations for which the end user should be reliant". It is precisely because the ban on asbestos is being regularly subverted that we have seen Australia and the EU take other measures to try to ban 'asbestosised' ships from entering their ports. I wish the Indian authorities would do the same especially at Alang, whose workers- many living in shanties inside dirty and dusty scrap yards, are horrendously exposed to asbestos and therefore Mesothelioma. Just like seamen.

In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court found that 16 percent of ships chopped up at Alang had asbestos traces. An Alang based safety officer and union official said at the time, "I can't say we haven't had (tuberculosis) or deaths, just not an epidemic." And, "Whether workers survive or die in their village, no one knows."  The ongoing fracas with the ex Exxon Valdez coming to the Alang graveyard is about asbestos too, in addition to mercury, arsenic and all the other goodies they bring us. 

Meanwhile, are you a seaman? Do you suffer from abdominal pain, fatigue, hoarseness, and weight loss? Do you think you have handled asbestos material on ships or inhaled any miniscule fibrous particles? Any loved ones displaying similar symptoms, or spitting up blood, or are jaundiced or have blood clots? Have fibres attached themselves to tissues around vital organs, causing inflammation? These are typical symptoms of mesothelioma; the onset of which almost invariably means death in less than two years.

It may be too late for those of us already exposed to asbestos: only time will tell. I know I have handled asbestos on many ships when I was younger, in the accommodation and engine room both. I know I have inhaled it for much of my working life; I just don't know for how long or how much.

That is because seamen do not know, usually, whether the ships they work on are asbestos free or not. They do not know for sure if the paints they use are clean, or that a ship is not picking up asbestos in one form or another during its voyage- in cargo, stores or whatever. They can only hope that some of the newer ships they work on were asbestos free at least when they were built. Hope, not trust.

It is shocking that, decades after the dangers of asbestos first became known, seamen continue to be knowingly exposed to a substance that causes incurable cancer, by an industry that has abrogated its primary responsibility to provide safe working conditions for them.

Not so shocking, actually, if you see what else goes on out there.

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