Shipbreaking is another name for ship demolition. It is the work of taking old ships apart for whatever can be salvaged — steel, bolts, cables, machine parts. It is dangerous work. Many old ships are oozing flammable fuel, for example, and sometimes workers die in fires. Other workers are killed when rusted decks give way beneath their feet, or when they are crushed by falling debris.

Before the 1980s, shipbreaking was done by highly mechanized operations in shipyards around the world. In recent decades, however, most shipbreaking operations have moved to third-world countries where labor is cheap and regulations are few.

The Dangers of Shipbreaking

Possibly the single biggest reason shipbreaking moved away from coastal North America is asbestos. Most ships built between about 1920 and 1980 were well insulated with asbestos. For this reason, older and retired shipyard workers are at high risk of developing mesothelioma. Today, the cost of safely removing asbestos takes the profit out of the shipbreaking business — unless the business is moved to a place where workers have no protection from unsafe working conditions. These same countries often have lax environmental protection policies, and there is little accountability for what is done with the asbestos once it is removed.

The Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard of Bangladesh is the most productive in the world and probably the most deadly. The shipbreaking industry in Bangladesh occupies eight miles of coast on the Bay of Bengal. Over 200,000 Bangladeshis are employed by about 80 privately owned yards there, breaking apart as many as 250 ships in a single year. More than 90 percent of the ships’ materials are reclaimed and re-used.

The work crews wear no protective clothing, doing their jobs in T-shirts, shorts and flip flops. They tear apart ships with their hands. Sometimes they use acetylene torches that can ignite pockets of gas or leaking oil. The workers, some of whom are children, make about $4 a day.

Sacrificing Safety for Profits

Meanwhile, the owners of these shipyards enjoy profits of up to $1 million per ship, according to Peter Gwin of National Geographic. Profits are higher in Bangladesh than in some other current shipbreaking centers, such as Pakistan, for the simple reason that owners in Bangladesh do not have to spend money meeting safety and environmental regulations, and they have no risk of personal injury lawsuits.

There were 15 known deaths in the yards in 2012 and 20 in 2013, but the actual death toll likely is higher. There is no official registry of workers, and companies don’t report incidents when they don’t feel they have to. Various watchdog groups report what they can. For example, a group called NGO Shipbreaking Platform reported that in April 2014, four workers died and three were severely injured when a gas cylinder exploded. A local group called Young Power in Social Action believes that on average one worker dies in the yards every week.

The ships broken apart at Chittagong weigh between 5,000 and 40,000 tons. They are more than 90 percent steel. They are also made of lead paint, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, and chromium. Along with asbestos they also contain PCBs in sealants and tons of various grades of oil. Much is recycled, but much of this also seeps into the environment. These substances cause a multitude of health problems in humans, from hormonal dysfunction to cancer.

Note that the metropolitan area of Chittagong has an estimated population of over 6.5 million people. It is Bangladesh’s largest seaport.

Environmental and Health Impacts

The coastal seawater also is being contaminated with ammonia, oil, and copious amounts of rust, posing a real threat to sea life. For many years, environmental organizations such as Greenpeace have been calling shipbreaking a major threat to the ocean environment.

The asbestos and heavy metals may eventually take a greater human toll than fires and falls. Metals such as arsenic and cadmium can enter the body in many ways, and they can accumulate in the body over time. Heavy metal poisoning causes mental and neurological impairment. The metals can also affect breathing, fertility, and gastrointestinal health. They can cause severe birth defects and increase risk of cancers at all ages.

Deadly mesothelioma cancer can take as long as 40 years to develop after exposure to asbestos. Many industrial studies have shown that the more a worker is exposed to asbestos the higher his chances of developing mesothelioma eventually. When asbestos is released into the environment, entire communities may be at risk.

For this reason, the real death toll of the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard is unknown. It may be many years before all the effects of the deadly work are visible, not to mention the potential health effects of environmental contamination to people in the community.