International regulation of asbestos in shipbuilding is complex
The U.S. has banned the use of asbestos in ship construction – to a point. In the U.S., there can be up to 1 percent asbestos content on ships without violating any regulations. By contrast, in the EU that number is .01 percent. In Australia, no amount of asbestos onboard is acceptable.
In addition, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) holds that no ship built after 2002 can contain asbestos. The U.S. is a signatory of that treaty, which covers 99 percent of merchant vessels in the world, by tonnage.
A history of asbestos in ships
The U.S. has a long history of using asbestos in ship construction. Once considered a miracle product, asbestos is a great insulator that can prevent fires. Unfortunately, it is also extremely hazardous, causing mesothelioma and lung cancer when inhaled.
Due to its status as a known carcinogen and health hazard, the U.S. Navy stopped using asbestos in the latter part of the 20th century, and did extensive modifications to existing ships containing asbestos.
Still, a number of older ships have asbestos, and even newer ships can contain some asbestos.
Asbestos still used in Chinese ship components
Enforcement of existing law is complex. For example, China manufactures a number of products for merchant ships. In China, it is still legal to use asbestos. While Chinese manufacturers may have set up asbestos-free assembly lines, there may still be the chance for cross-contamination.
Also, under SOLAS, shipbuilders must only certify that the product is asbestos-free. There is often no inspection done on the ship. Due to the international nature of ship construction, this can be problematic.
The U.S. Navy has largely removed asbestos from its ships, which caused a number of veterans and shipyard workers to develop mesothelioma and other types of cancer. As the world works to eliminate asbestos from ships entirely, it is important to remember that mesothelioma is not a problem of the past – it remains a danger to shipbuilders and people in seagoing professions.