By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Online
Greenpeace has called for British ships to be scrapped in the UK to stop them ending up in the developing world.
The ships are dragged onto the beach and then dismantled
Backed by the GMB union and MP Peter Mandelson, they are calling on the Navy to take the lead and stop obsolete ships ending up in the sub-continent.
Their ships from around the world are broken up by workers, including children, without protective equipment.
The campaign wants a "world-class" ship-breaking industry for the UK which can tackle lethal asbestos or PCBs.
As part of the "START Ship Recycling" campaign, Greenpeace has released shocking images, showing workers handling asbestos at yards in India.
The mineral causes asbestosis, scarring of the lungs which causes breathing difficulties. It also causes mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs that develops 20 to 40 years after inhalation of asbestos fibres and kills 75% of its victims within one year of diagnosis.
Rusting hulks are pulled onto the beaches and slowly torn apart by workers paid as little as £1 a day.
As well as asbestos, the ships often contain PCBs, fuel oil and lead, and those dismantling them risk injury from falling metalwork or explosions triggered after cutting into fuel tanks.
Greenpeace and the GMB believe the work would be better done in the UK, and wants all British ships disposed of at least within the EU while sophisticated British ship-breaking facilities are established.
The demand follows the row over the arrival of US ships, reportedly containing hazardous waste, for dismantling in Teesside.
Environmentalists say there is no contradiction between opposing the arrival of American ships and wanting to stop British ships being scrapped abroad.
They espouse the Proximity Principle, which means waste is best dealt with where it has been generated.
Simon Reddy, of Greenpeace, said: "It is absolutely outrageous that ships are being sent to India. I don't think some of the people in India are even aware of what asbestos is. You can see clouds billowing around in the wind.
"It isn't right to keep exporting ships around the world to be scrapped.
"If the UK has to scrap its own ships, it will think twice in the future about building a ship that contains hazardous waste."
Mr Mandelson, who represents the constituency where the US ships were being taken, told Radio 4's Today programme his eyes had been opened by the controversy.
"We have a choice. We can see this dismantling and recycling activity undertaken in properly regulated conditions with human life and environmental considerations fully protected as they are in my constituency and the rest of Europe.
"Alternatively, as it is becoming increasingly done in Asia, you can see poverty paid workers, including women and children, breaking ships with torch cutters and their own bare hands unprotected from toxic substances, explosions and falling steel."
He is urging ministers to introduce "stringent conditions" over the disposal of UK ships in the wake of the case involving the Royal Navy Ships Olna and Olwen, which were scrapped on the beach at Alang in India in 2000 after a convoluted process.
The Ministry of Defence sold them to a breaker in Germany, who in turn tried to pass them on to a yard in Turkey. Turkey refused entry to the ships because of the waste on board, so they passed on to Greece before eventually ending at Alang.
The MoD says the asbestos was stripped out of the ships in Greece and that it has photographs and certificates to prove this, but Greenpeace says it has serious doubts about whether this is the case.
Mark Strutt, a toxics campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "We don't think the ship was there long enough to be completely stripped and decontaminated."
A spokesman for the MoD said it obeyed all national and international law in disposing of ships and considered issues such as where the ships might end up when considering tenders from European firms to scrap ships.
He added: "We do not accept that scrapping ships in the UK is necessary to ensure a high standard of disposal."
Many workers seem unaware contact with asbestos is deadly
But other than disqualifying firms from future tenders and hoping that European law is enforced, it cannot prevent ships being passed on by European brokers to yards in India which use child labour and have little or no safety standards.
Jean Baird knows the horror of asbestos disease, having lost her husband William to it after years of work on ships on the Clyde.
She said: "I've christened it the silent dust death sentence. That fibre gets into the pleura of the lung and starts to do its work but can take 15, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years before it strikes. Once it does, that person's on death row and it is a terrible death it causes.
"It is criminal, pure murder knowing these facts to send a ship to these countries where the workers are not aware. It is like sending a poison.
"Every country is responsible for their own disposal of waste within their own country."
Greenpeace's next battle is over HMS Intrepid, laden with 40 tonnes of asbestos, and waiting in Portsmouth until a suitable destination can be found for scrapping it.
The MoD can give no guarantees about where its final resting place will be.