What Hazardous Materials Can Be Found in Old Ships?

December 30th, 2020 | in Asbestos

Old ships often contain a variety of hazardous materials used in their construction. These toxic and hazardous materials should be properly identified and removed by trained professionals, prior to sinking or during end-of-life decommissioning or renovation. Toxic and hazardous materials include asbestos, lead mercury and anti-fouling paints commonly applied to the hulls of ocean-going vessels.

When abandoned or sunken vessels (often sunk for reef building) decompose, they release these toxic substances and destroy the natural environments and endanger sea life and humans in the area as well as contaminating coastal areas.

Some common toxic substances found in old ships:


Asbestos is one of the most common and abundant hazardous materials found onboard ships. Asbestos is used as an insulating spray on metal decks for fire protection, in engine rooms and exhaust stacks, deck coatings and is often sandwiched between steel plates in the walls. When damaged or during removal, it breaks into fine fibres, which can be suspended in the air for long periods of time. If inhaled, the fibres can lead to fatal diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, the symptoms of which may not be apparent for many years. Asbestos fibres can travel with the workers on their clothes, lengthening their exposure to the pollutant and exposing others living in the same household. Special training, procedures, protective equipment and monitoring and decontamination facilities are required for asbestos removal or abatement.

Asbestos from sunken ships will wash up on coastal areas, dry and become airborne.

Heavy metals

The main threats to human health from heavy metals degradation and release are associated with exposure to lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. Many of the heavy metals need to be removed and disposed of in the right manner. Mercury and lead exposure causes irreversible learning complications, physical development, and mental retardation. Copper, lead, zinc, mercury, and cadmium from old ships are all harmful to humankind in high doses.


People can be exposed to toxic fuel and oil from old ships. Every individual is at risk when drinking contaminated water and eating polluted fish from the sea.

Anti fouling paint or coatings

Anti fouling paints and coatings improve ship performance and reduces the growth of organisms on the ship's hull. These are aggressive biocides which kill living organisms. They are one of the most harmful compounds in the aquatic environment and can weaken the immune system of all the living organisms in the sea or ocean and can damage human health even in small doses.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) are found in liquid and solid forms in old ships. When burned they produce some of the most harmful materials called furans and dioxins. Old ships can contain a lot of polychlorinated biphenyls which is highly harmful to human beings.

This is only a partial list. Care should always be exercised when exploring or handling materials from old ships.

Enviro-Vac is one of the oldest privately owned environmental contractors in Canada. They offer a full suite of services in hazardous materials abatement and decontamination including shrink- wrap containments and are available to work both small and large-scale projects across Canada. The head office is based in Surrey, BC.

If you have any questions about this article or would like to talk to us about hazardous materials abatement solutions, decontamination of facilities, high-risk containments or industrial vacuum cleaning, please call us on our toll-free number, (888) 296-2499.

Cynthia White is a BA in English from NYU, with extensive experience as a writer and blogger. She has worked as a submissions' editor for a literary magazine, and Editor-in-Chief of a large industry publication. She was chosen Quora's Top Writer of 2018, and got a Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) President's Award, in 2018.

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