Exposure to asbestos in the slums of a sub-population of migrant ship dismantlers in Bangladesh

“Shipbreaking” is the dismantling and recycling of obsolete vessels, their hulls and superstructures. In Bangladesh, this work is carried out on beaches. Salvaged items are resold in local markets and workers and their families live in adjacent slums. Ships often contain hazardous substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals and asbestos, which are all recognized carcinogens. Most work is done without adequate training or protection, and there is high potential for exposures to toxic materials in the shipyards, shops and the community itself. According to the International Labour Organization, shipbreaking is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. On average, one worker dies every week; the long-term consequences of mortality due to cancer and other chronic illnesses are unknown. Few studies have been performed in Bangladesh on the environmental impact of dismantling ships, the health of shipbreakers, or the impact on the surrounding community and maritime environment. Working in collaboration with local university and non-governmental organization researchers, Midori Courtice is measuring the concentration of asbestos in workers’ living quarters, in shops selling salvaged items, and in areas downwind of ship-dismantling operations. She will interview people about their knowledge, attitudes and practices with respect to their handling of, and hazards associated with, asbestos. Courtice’s findings will be made available to the participants and the local community, and her recommendations could inform local workshops on hazards and reducing risk. Her work will also provide the basis to approach policy makers and strengthen the link between research and policy, to raise awareness of personal health and safety among workers, and to build local capacity for future research on sustainable solutions related to the shipbreaking industry.