New guidelines to cut health and environmental dangers from ship dismantling

International experts on hazardous wastes and shipping have joined forces to start finalising international guidelines for the environmentally safe dismantling of obsolete ships in an attempt to cut risks posed by hazardous wastes.

The experts met in Geneva on 19 June concerned that many of the materials ships are made of are toxic and, too often, the craft are dismantled with no regard to health or environmental concerns. The decommissioning of a large vessel may involve the removal of many tonnes of hazardous wastes, including Persistent Organic Pollutants such as PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and lead, asbestos, and oil and gas. Dismantling can also result in the release of dioxin and sulphur fumes. Workers, local communities, coastal and ocean biodiversity, groundwater and air are all at risk. Indeed, in many nations, such as India, workers come into direct contact with toxic substances, manually dismantling ships.

The 89-page Guidelines seek to minimise or eliminate these risks by introducing universally applied principles for the environmentally sound management of ship dismantling. They detail procedures and good practices for decommissioning and selling obsolete ships, dismantling them, sorting the parts (for reuse, recycling and disposal), identifying potential contaminants, preventing toxic releases, monitoring environmental impacts, and responding to emergencies and accidents. They also address the design, construction and operation of ship dismantling facilities.

The new guidelines are being developed by the International Maritime Organization, addressing safety and environmental issues in international shipping, the International Chamber of Shipping, now drafting the first-ever guidelines on how shipbuilders can minimise the environmental impacts of the retirement phase of a ship’s life cycle, the International Labour Organization (ILO), addressing serious issues of occupational safety and health, and environmental NGOs.

“By taking responsibility for the environmental impacts of its expired equipment, the shipping industry is setting a high standard for other industries to emulate,” commented Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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