Friday, February 03, 2006

Outsourcing death

Mrs. R. and I have only been on one cruise (on our 25th wedding anniversary) but we enjoyed ourselves. No internet (this was some years ago; not sure I could handle it now), essentially no telephone, no executive decisions to make. Nothing to do but gorge ourselves obscenely and relax aboard the old SS France, one of the last of a now extinct of class of luxury liners (built in 1962).

Couldn't do that again. Because the SS France is sitting in a harbor in Malaysia, waiting to be sent to a scrap merchant in Bangladesh to be dismantled. Along with about 1000 metric tonnes of asbestos it carries onboard. Why Bangladesh?
"Every year some 600 to 700 large sea vessels are taken out of service and towed to scrap yards in Asia," Yannick Jadot who heads the anti-asbestos campaign at Greenpeace told IPS. "This represents several millions of tonnes of material to be dismantled, including thousands of tonnes of hazard waste, including asbestos."

Jadot said that until 1970 most of the dismantling of ships was carried out in naval yards in Europe and North America. But after a tightening of labour and health rules protecting workers and environment, the industry was outsourced to developing countries, especially in Asia. (Interpress News Agency)
In other words, the industrialized countries don't want to handle asbestos because it kills people by scarring their lungs (asbestosis) or causing cancer (primarily lung cancer, but also a deadly cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities called mesothelioma and several other cancers, including those of the larynx and intestinal tracts).

What about workers and their bosses in the developing world, where we are now sending this stuff (and Canada, a major exporter of asbestos, still sells it)? I can't say from personal knowledge what the state of knowledge is now, but in the 1980s when asbestos hazards were well known in the industrialized world I visited a shipyard in Ismailaya, Egypt and saw a great deal of asbestos used with minimal protection. I asked the chief medical officer of the yard if he was concerned and he told me you didn't need to worry about health effects if you didn't work with asbestos for too long or too often. I quickly informed him this was not the case, but I got the distinct impression he didn't take me seriously.

This was at the same time the Canadian government was looking for new markets for their asbestos, because the old ones, the US and Europe, didn't want to touch the stuff any more. In those days it was not uncommon for me to remark sarcastically that if you asked the asbestos manufacturers if their product was dangerous they'd say don't worry, you could eat it for breakfast. Then one day I got a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) asking if I would go on their big Sunday morning coast to coast news show because the Canadian Minister of Mines said exporting asbestos to the developing world was no problem. It was so safe, he said, he could put a spoonful in his morning coffee. "Holy shit," I said to myself. "They really are saying you could eat it for breakfast." So I went on the show (by phone) and listened and damn if he didn't say it again!

The last cruise of the SS France shows that not much has changed since then. Now it's the turn of the Bangladeshis to suffer the consequences of exposure to "the magic mineral," asbestos. In ancient times asbestos was sometimes used to wrap a royal corpse before it was placed on the funeral pyre so his ashes could be easily separated. Thus it also was called "the funeral dress of kings."

I guess you can say Bangladeshi workers are going to get the Royal Treatment.