Notorious oil tanker Exxon Valdez, which collided with rocks along the Alaskan coast and spilled her cargo of around 11 million gallons of crude oil in March 1989, is to be subjected to one more thorough examination for residual oil and toxic contanimants, such as arsenic, mercury and asbestos before finally being broken up for scrap.
The defunct Exxon Valdez – renamed the Oriental Nicety – was purchased by a Chinese subsidiary to an Indian wrecking and salvage company. However, the scrapping operation to be carried out in the coastal town of Alang in Gujarat, Western India, drew resistance from local environmentalists since the tanker’s arrival in May 2012, concerned over the amount of asbestos likely to still be contained within the vessel. Consequently, the Indian Supreme Court issued a decree for a full decontamination of the tanker to be undertaken before salvage proceeds.
The news should also act as a reminder that the use of asbestos as insulation and fireproofing was widespread throughout commercial as well as naval shipping as recently as the 1970s until growing asbestos awareness to the fatal health risks saw the first bans introduced in the UK from the mid 1980s.
In dockyards around Britain, over 300 asbestos containing materials were commonly used in insulating areas such as a vessel’s boilers, bulkhead systems, exhaust systems, electrical fixtures, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves hot steam pipes, hot water lines and fuel lines on pumps, turbines, compressors and condensers.
A 1965 asbestos survey, which was carried out at the Devonport Naval Dockyard, discovered that nearly 5 per cent of males aged 50-59 years showed abnormalities of the lung likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos dust. A similar survey at the dockyards of Chatham and Portsmouth also found that up to 4 per cent displayed abnormalities most probably caused by asbestos exposure.
As recently as February 2012, the Medway area of the South East, including the towns of Rochester, Strood, Chatham, Gillingham and Rainham, recorded the second highest mesothelioma fatality rate of 104 deaths or just over 6 deaths per 100,000 people between 2006 and 2012.
The exceptionally long gestation period of up to 50 years or more from an initial asbestos exposure to the emergence of mesothlioma or asbestosis symptoms has meant that fatality rates continue to rise nearly half a century after the peak years of asbestos use.
The HSE estimate that 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in the UK and the number of asbestosis claim cases has more than doubled from 574 in 2007 to 1,164 in 2010.