Asbestos in ships – In Every Harbour

For a number of reasons, asbestos in ships can present an increased risk of asbestos exposure. First, the use of asbestos in shipbuilding over the years has been unusually high, and has included a disproportionately large amount of blue and brown asbestos – the worst types.
Second, some of the most dangerous asbestos application methods, such as spraying, have been particularly prevalent in ship construction, and these methods also increase friability. Added to these construction factors is the fact that ships are not stable environments: they roll, pitch, yaw, heave, surge, sway, slam and vibrate, and in the engine room these issues are magnified by vibrating machinery.
These conditions make friable asbestos far more likely to emit fibres.
A UK study estimated an increase of 61% over the expected presence of asbestos in shipyard workers. A similar study in Trieste, Italy, showed that of 153 men who had died of malignant mesothelioma, 99 had worked in shipbuilding, 19 had been in the navy/merchant marine and 7 had been dockworkers.

asbestos in ships battleship
Asbestos in battleships
asbestos in ships commercial-vessel
Asbestos in commercial vessels

asbestos in ships cruiser
Asbestos in cruiser ships
Asbestos ship locations

Where is asbestos in ships found?

In the worst cases, you can find asbestos virtually everywhere on a ship. It can be in:

    • the concrete and tiling on the floor
    • the wall and ceiling panels and the fire insulation behind them
    • the doors
    • the glues and sealants in the windows and furniture
    • heat insulation and lagging
    • electrical cables
    • brake linings and gaskets
    • mooring ropes
    • firemen’s outfits
    • boiler cladding
    • furnace firebricks, and
    • welding shop curtains and welders gloves.

The list goes on.

Asbestos in ships – Detailed list

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has published a detailed list of areas where asbestos in ships can be found:

Structure and/or equipmentComponent
Propeller shafting • Packing with low pressure hydraulic piping flange
• Packing with casing
• Brake lining
• Clutch
• Synthetic stern tubes
Diesel engine • Packing with piping flange
• Lagging material for exhaust pipe
• Lagging material for fuel pipe
• Lagging material turbocharger
Turbine engine • Lagging material for casing
• Packing with flange of piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line and drain line
• Lagging material for piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line and drain line
Boiler • Insulation in combustion chamber • Gasket for manhole
• Packing for casing door • Gasket for hand hole
• Gas shield packing for soot blower and other hole
• Packing with flange of piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line, fuel line and drain line
• Lagging material for piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line, fuel line and drain line
Exhaust gas economizer • Packing for casing door
• Packing with hand hole
• Packing with manhole
• Gas shield packing for soot blower
• Packing with flange of piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line, fuel line and drain line
• Lagging material for piping and valve for steam line, exhaust line, fuel line and drain line
Incinerator • Packing for casing door
• Packing with hand hole
• Packing with manhole
• Lagging material for exhaust pipe
Auxiliary machinery (pump,
compressor, oil purifier, crane)
• Packing for casing door and valve
• Brake lining
• Gland packing
Heat exchanger • Packing for casing door and valve
• Lagging material and insulation
• Gland packing for valve
Valve • Gland packing with valve, sheet packing with piping flange
• Gasket with flange of high pressure and/or high temperature
Pipe, duct • Lagging material and insulation
Tank (fuel, hot water, tank,
condenser), other equipments
(fuel strainer, lubricant oil strainer)
• Lagging material and insulation
Electric equipment • Insulation material
Airborne asbestos • Wall, ceiling
Ceiling, floor and wall in
accommodation area
• Ceiling, floor, wall
Fire door • Packing, construction and insulation of the fire door
Inert gas system • Packing for casing, etc.
Air-conditioning system • Sheet packing, lagging material for piping and flexible joint
Miscellaneous • Ropes
• Moulded plastic products
• Thermal insulating materials • Sealing putty
• Fire shields/fire proofing
• Shaft/valve packing
• Space/duct insulation
• Electrical bulkhead penetration packing
• Electrical cable materials
• Circuit breaker arc chutes
• Brake linings
• Pipe hanger inserts
• Floor tiles/deck underlay
• Weld shop protectors/burn covers
• Steam/water/vent flange gaskets
• Fire-fighting blankets/clothing equipment
• Adhesives/mastics/fillers
• Concrete ballast
• Sound damping

Asbestos in ships – Further details

The above list applies on all sorts of sea vessels, including navy (military), merchant, cruiser and public transportation vessels. Here follows some examples of common asbestos-containg materials widely used in ships. The details do not give you a complete coverage of all possible locations of asbestos material, but those are the typical areas where you find asbestos in ships:

Pipe insulation, covers, ropes and
insulated board

asbestos in ships steam-plant
Asbestos in ships lagging on steam plant
asbestos in ships thick-insulation
Thick asbestos insulation on ship interior pipes
asbestos in ships turbo-alternator
Asbestos in ships turbo alternator

asbestos in ships warning-labels
Asbestos warning labels

Pipe insulation or lagging is one of the most common uses of asbestos, especially lagging used for high-temperature steam or heating pipes. These materials can be naturally quite friable and can be damaged easily, especially in a busy engine room, but they can be reasonably easily sealed in place with the right paints or adhesives. This needs to be managed carefully. In some cases, asbestos lagging is so friable that it must be totally encapsulated or removed.

asbestos in ships insulation-rope
Asbestos insulation rope.
This rope is highly friable and will contaminate the whole area, including the rockwool below it. Rockwool can easily ‘absorb’ asbestos waste fibres and so presents a danger even if it is manufactured without asbestos. In some ship recycling legislation, rockwool is mandatorily treated as asbestos-containing waste.

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Asbestos canvas. This is also used on cold water pipes to avoid condensation.
asbestos in ships canvas
Asbestos canvas close up

asbestos in ships loose-flock-insulation
Asbestos loose flock insulation.
This type of loose flock is so friable it will quickly contaminate the area it is in, and should be removed as soon as possible. Even if it is encapsulated in another material, it will quickly cover the internal surfaces of that material with fibres, leading to large releases if it is disturbed.

Asbestos fire blankets

Asbestos fire blankets are a common nuisance. They are often brought on board ships by uncontrolled sub-contractors carrying out temporary work. They are extremely easy to damage and very friable, so they will easily shed large numbers of fibres which can be difficult to clean up. Their asbestos content will be very high – well over 50%.

asbestos in ships fire-blanket-close-up
Close up of an asbestos blanket

asbestos in ships friable-blanket-debris
Friable mess and fibres from an asbestos blanket. A piece of cloth has been used to protect the deck from the scaffolding – this will clearly cause large asbestos fibre releases.

An asbestos blanket used as pipe lagging
asbestos in ships fire-blanket-protect-oil-tank
Asbestos blankets being used to protect oil tanks from flame and sparks

Deckheads and ceiling and wall panels

Asbestos was regularly specified for use in ship deckheads and panels because of its fire-resistant properties. Because of this, original A-60 or similar panels of a certain age will be almost guaranteed to contain asbestos. But the asbestos content of other ordinary panels is harder to predict. Because of the material’s great performance and low price, it was often used by panel manufacturers even when fire protection wasn’t specified. The only way to tell if ordinary panels contain asbestos is destructive examination. All panels sourced from countries that still allow asbestos should be suspected of containing it. A quick internet search will show how easy it is to find asbestos boards for sale even today. It is not only the panels that might contain asbestos – the glues, cements, putties, backing strips and shims used in their construction are also likely to contain it. The putties and adhesives are not likely to be friable. Cement may well be highly friable but should be underneath items which will protect it. In general the danger from panels is low. It is very easy to see if a panel is damaged and light damage can be rectified very easily. Such work should normally be undertaken by specialist sub contractors. However, it can be carried out by suitably trained crew using emergency repair kits if the ships has a good asbestos management plan in place and legislation allows it. Training needs and repair methods should be included in the ship’s ISM manual and crew training and procedures documentation. This work should also be monitored by specialists at the arranged intervals. Panels in good condition can be safely managed in situ or easily removed in one piece by specialist companies if the objective is to reduce the amount of asbestos on the ship.

asbestos in ships damaged-millboard-ceiling
A damaged asbestos millboard ceiling
asbestos in ships portland-cement-ceiling
A Portland asbestos cement ceiling

It is very difficult to tell the difference between these two ceilings and both should be suspected as containing asbestos. But the key difference is that the first ceiling is damaged and friable. It should be repaired by a specialist or tested to ascertain if it is asbestos. Even if the second photograph is an asbestos ceiling it is not damaged or friable and therefore is not demonstrating poor asbestos management.

Fire doors and surrounds

Fire doors have historically been made with asbestos because of its fire-retardant properties. The asbestos is commonly hidden in the core of the door. Modern doors would be expected to contain mineral wool, but if doors are sourced from countries that allow asbestos they should be suspected as containing it. As you can see from the photograph below it is almost impossible to tell what a fire door is made of just by looking at its exterior. The photograph also shows that asbestos is normally well encapsulated within fire doors and can be managed safely in situ.

asbestos in ships -fire-door
Asbestos within a fire door

A typical bulkhead panel with the interior exposed

asbestos in ships bulkhead-interior
A typical bulkhead panel with the interior exposed
This is a typical sandwich board bulkhead panel found in accommodation blocks. The exterior is formica which is asbestos free. This encapsulates the asbestoscontaining material in the middle. If the formica was undamaged the panel would not present a problem. But exposed like this, the friable asbestos will be easily disturbed. Unrepaired damage like this is an example of poor asbestos management. It could be resealed with tape, adhesive or more formica. Modern sandwich board panels are likely to contain rockwool. Once you are familiar with it, rockwool looks distinctly different from asbestos-containing material.

Asbestos rope in a fire door frame

asbestos in ships rope-door-frame
Asbestos rope in a fire door frame.
This is a very interesting photograph. Asbestos rope has been used to improve the seal between the door and its frame. Asbestos rope is always friable and in this instance the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the door bangs into the rope every time it closes. It is certainly not an example of good management and we would expect the rope to be replaced by specialists.

Asbestos in floors

asbestos in ships floor-tile-glue
Asbestos vinyl floor tiles and asbestos glue
Floors present particular problems because they are often multi-layered and any or all of these layers might contain asbestos. An A-60 floor, for example, might contain a bottom levelling layer (so that the fire layer can be accurately applied); several centimetres of ‘fire proof cement’; a levelling compound; an adhesive; and a fire-proof tile or carpet. Even within one layer, asbestos content may vary widely. This is particularly true of cement, where several different mixes may have been used to complete the same floor. To find out how much asbestos a floor contains, you would need to test each individual layer. But in reality, asbestos testing on ships is a process of estimating based on random testing. The more tests you complete, and the better they are structured, the better the estimate you will achieve.
Asbestos floor tiles are very common, but even when damaged they are very unlikely to emit a dangerous level of fibres since they are bound up in the vinyl matrix. The glue may contain an even higher percentage of asbestos than the tiles but it too is unlikely to be friable.

asbestos in ships cement-bridge-flooring
Asbestos in cement bridge floor

Putties and sealants used in penetrations

asbestos in ships putty
Asbestos-containing putty in the ‘watertight’ penetrations of cables
Many putties and sealants were manufactured with asbestos, and they still are in some countries. Asbestos can also be added as a ‘bulking’ agent to an ‘asbestos free’ putty, glue or sealant, to alter its properties or make it go further. Older putties and sealants and those manufactured in countries still using asbestos must therefore be suspected of containing it. The good news is that provided they are not disturbed, and are not brittle or aged, they are likely to last for the life of the ship without becoming friable or causing a health hazard. In these cases we would encourage proper management in situ rather than removal, unless relevant legislation required it. The substitute for asbestos in new putties and sealants is often silicon. Silicon actually outperforms asbestos in many areas, but can be a nuisance to work with.

asbestos in ships blue asbestos putty
Crocidolite (blue) asbestos putty in an unauthorised repair to a non-asbestos penetration.
This is almost certainly an unapproved modification to a cable penetration (the cables are not properly installed on the cable tray and are not properly secured). It is a common sight on board ships. In this instance the original penetration is asbestosfree, but the new penetration contains crocidolite (blue) asbestos. Although this is the most dangerous type, because it is in putty and clearly not friable it can be safely managed in situ. This material is likely to have come on board the ship in the equipment box of a sub-contractor. Newbuild and repair yards therefore need to perform checks on sub-contractors’ activities and equipment. Good surveyors will surreptitiously peak into the tool boxes of workmen, not least because many glues and sealants contain materials which present fire hazards or are toxic when burnt.

asbestos in ships putty-small
A common use of asbestos putty on small fitments
asbestos in ships cable-penetration
Asbestos-containing material in a cable penetration

Asbestos rope being used as a sealant for
exhaust uptakes

asbestos in ships exhaust-sealant-rope
Asbestos rope being used as a sealant for exhaust uptakes
Using asbestos rope as a sealant in this way is unsafe. Seals on exhaust uptakes are subject to constant thermal stress and vibration induced by waves and engines, which makes them potentially highly friable. This example clearly illustrates why shipowners trying to risk assess their asbestos liability should use marine asbestos experts, who knows about asbestos in ships. A land-based inspector might assume that a sealant like this is undisturbed and relatively safe. An experienced and licensed marine asbestos assessor would understand the influence of the ship’s movements.

asbestos in ships exhaust-pipe-lagging
Asbestos lagging on the exhaust pipe of an emergency generator

Engine room stores – spare parts

Engine room stores are some of the commonest areas for new asbestos to get on board ships. The problem is underlined by the IMO Circular, MSC.1/circ.1426. This recognises that it is almost impossible to guarantee that engine room stores do not contain asbestos, and
therefore states that asbestos is allowed in engine room stores but that items containing it cannot actually be installed on board the ship.

asbestos in ships gasket-material-rolls
Rolls of asbestos containing cardboard gasket material.
Gaskets are probably one of the biggest problems when it comes to asbestos in ships, even modern ships. Gasket material is impossible to trace over a whole ship’s lifecycle and therefore on older ships all gaskets should be presumed to contain asbestos. The good news is that, unless disturbed, gaskets present a very low risk. The exposed edge of a gasket may be friable but it is a very small area which is often protected by the flange or is otherwise unlikely to be disturbed. We recommend that all gaskets are managed as if they contain asbestos and not removed unless required by legislation.

Asbestos in ships engine room

The engine room store examples show that you are likely to find asbestos in the engine room itself. Any asbestos there is prone to damage due to the operations taking place and the heat, humidity and vibration.

Sprayed blue asbestos on a steel engine room bulkhead.
This is blue asbestos sprayed onto an engine room bulkhead. Provided it is in good condition and managed properly it may be considered safe. However, if it has become exposed and friable, effective management can be very difficult. In these cases, properly stabilising the surface is highly recommended, Physical encapsulation is preferable to removal of asbestos in ships in cases where removal will cause unacceptable disturbance

Ship recycling facilities

asbestos in ships recycling-india-night
Half demolished ship at a breaking yard
A recycling facility is where ships are dismantled when they have reached the end of their life. Because recycling facilities commonly deal with older ships, they are certain to encounter asbestos. The IMO’s 2009 Hong Kong International Convention on the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (the Hong Kong Convention) contains guidelines for recycling facilities covering how to deal with asbestos in ships and other hazards.
Despite this, ship breaking has become an issue of environmental concern beyond the health of the yard workers. Many ship breaking yards operate in developing nations with lax or no environmental law, enabling large quantities of highly toxic materials to escape into the general environment, including the asbestos in ships, and causing serious health problems among ship breakers, the local population, and wildlife.

asbestos in ships recycling-india
Children exposed to toxic materials, including asbestos, while working at a ship breaking yard in India
asbestos in ships recycling-india
Worker at a ship breaking yard in India, amongst numerous toxic materials


“Asbestos on ships – Lloyd’s Register”
“Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia – Ship-breaking in India”
“Of Ships and Men”
“Ship breaking – Wikipedia”

Return to list of asbestos products

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