World Oceans Day on June 8 this year is of particular significance to Sri Lanka because the theme this time is “Life and Livelihood”. Both life and livelihood had come under severe threat in the island when the container vessel X-Press Pearl carrying hazardous chemicals like nitric acid, caught fire and sank 9.5 nautical miles off Colombo harbor. Tons of plastic and other dangerous effluents were washed ashore between Colombo and Negombo. Marine life, including dolphins, lay dead on beaches and human lives were threatened.
A Facebook post by Hemantha Withanage, Executive Director at the Centre for Environmental Justice Sri Lanka, had dubbed X-Press Pearl as a “toxic vessel”. He warned that the “billions of plastic pellets washed ashore from Colombo to Gampaha would last for 500 to 1000 years. You may collect 50%, but the rest will remain in the coast in the sand.”
The vessel apparently had 81 containers with dangerous chemical cargo including 25 tonnes of nitric acid and caustic soda. The nitric acid, which had leaked because of bad packaging, caught fire and the result was an inferno lasting several days. Commenting on this, Withanage said: “Nitric acid is very toxic if inhaled. It is corrosive to metals or tissue. Prolonged exposure to low concentrations or short term exposure to high concentrations to Nitric acid may result in adverse health effects, the team warned. Some chemicals, which are not toxic in a pure state, could be dangerous if ignited and mixed with water.”
“Plastic pellets can adsorb other pollutants in water and transfer them through the food chain. Or, if burned, could emit other hazardous endocrine disruptive chemicals such as Dioxin, Furans, Mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls into the atmosphere. Some of the poisoning symptoms would take time to appear while some show up immediately. A massive number of ocean creatures had died along the coastal belt.”
The environmentalists’ team led by Withanage warned that although the effect on humans is not yet prominently shown, “it should be understood that depending on one’s immunity level, nutrient intake, hormone functioning, age, gender, chronic diseases, duration and frequency of exposure and route of exposure, the effect of these chemicals can vary on different people.”
Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, who served on the Danish government’s ‘Council on Corporate Responsibility’ from 2009-2012, said that the world’s environmental situation, already acute, will worsen due to marine accidents involving container vessels. Describing the current global environmental situation, he said that 80% of the world’s ecosystem is being degraded faster than the recovery rate. Since the global center of economic gravity is shifting to over-populated Asia, there will be new environmental problems, he warned.
The container vessel sector is a polluting sector, he asserts. Most of the issues faced by the container shipping industry relate to emissions. Therefore, the focus is on Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.
“There also strong signals that sulfur oxide (SOx), Nitrogen oxide (NOx), Particulate Matter (PM) and black carbon would receive greater attention due to the significant human health and environmental impacts. The industry’s total Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emissions comprise between 3 and 4% higher than the total emission of Germany. The annual Particulate Matter (PM) and Sulfur Oxide (SOx) emissions from the shipping industry contribute to the premature death of more than 60,000 people globally. They also contribute to millions of peoples’ respiratory problems, specifically those living close to congested ports,” Pruzan-Jorgensen writes.
Bunker fuel, (low grade heavy fuel oil used to power a ship), is the major reason for toxic emissions. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the global body that regulates the industry, had set out to bring the sulfur…