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Despite being known as a highly toxic material, asbestos is still being used in newly built ships. Recently, an internationally accredited company that conducts asbestos survey in ships, the Centre Testing International, performed a survey on a ship built in France and established that it had asbestos in three locations. On a different survey, the same charterer’s ship built in 2012 was found to have asbestos in 14 locations. These recent discoveries of continued use of asbestos on newly built ships have raised fresh concerns regarding the safety of seafarers.


Brief History Of The Use Of Asbestos On Ships

The use of asbestos in shipbuilding was at its peak between1940 and 1980. This was before its dangers to humans were discovered. After the health hazards of asbestos were discovered in the 1970s and early 80s that is when the use of asbestos in shipbuilding was prohibited and banned. The main health hazard referred to above from asbestos exposure is known as mesothelioma.

However, disproportionately large amounts of brown and blue asbestos have been used in building ships before and even after this ban. And although the use of asbestos in ships is prohibited, there are exceptions that allow its use. These exceptions are defined by the New Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) in Chapter II-1 Regulations 3-5. These are the latest regulations by the International Marine Organization that prohibit new installation of asbestos-containing materials in ships.

Nevertheless, the Lloyds List reported recently that unnamed ships built in 2009 were found to have a substantial amount of asbestos. This combined with the findings of the survey by the Centre Testing International indicate that asbestos is still being used in newly built ships.


Reasons For Banning Asbestos In Shipbuilding In The First Place

When asbestos is disturbed it produces airborne fibers or dust. Once this is inhaled or swallowed by seafarers, these fibers penetrate the human lungs and abdomen and lodge themselves in the mesothelium (tissue lining that surrounds and protects internal organs). Eventually, these asbestos fibers cause irritation which leads to the development of mesothelioma cancer. That’s why asbestos use in building ships is a major concern especially for seafarers that are on these boats for the majority of their lives.


Specific Parts On Ships Where Asbestos Was Recently Found

Some of the parts of the newly built ship where asbestos was found include:

  • The rotary vane vacuum pumps and rotary vane compressor.
  • Flexible and supple thermal insulation that is used when the temperature is above 1000oC.
  • Water-tight joints and insulation where fluids circulate or where temperature is more than 350oC and pressure is more than 70 bars.
  • Areas with toxicity, corrosion and fire risk


Asbestos that is used to build new ships is usually in a processed form. This is mainly because of its heat resistance property. Additionally, asbestos is used to provide electrical insulation while imparting strength to other materials.

Therefore, asbestos can also be found in:

  • Friction material for brake lining winches
  • Fire retardant bulkheads
  • Gaskets and glands of the valves and pipe works
  • Thermal insulation like steam pipes and boiler lagging

Clearly, asbestos in ships is not a past problem as it was assumed by some people. Seafarers are still at the risk of being exposed to asbestos and this only implies that more cases of all three types of mesothelioma are likely to be reported in the future.


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