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Risks associated with the transport of chemicals and plastics in containerships need to be addressed, say the authors of the first public study into the impacts on people and the environment of toxic chemicals released during the largest plastic pellet spill on record.

The report, X-Press Pearl: a ‘new kind of oil spill’, was published this week by health and environmental advocates International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ).

It includes results of the groups’ analysis of plastic debris that washed up on Sri Lankan beaches, and testimonies from communities devastated by the pollution, following the loss of the X-Press Pearl, which sank off the port of Colombo in May last year.

Over 80 of the 1,486 containers onboard the ship contained dangerous goods. Full details of the cargo are not publicly available, and no-one knows exactly what was spilled from the containership. The ship was carrying 1,680 tons of plastic pellets. After the incident dead fish, turtles, dolphins, and whales washed up on local beaches, along with huge quantities of plastic pellets. Fishing bans were imposed and clean-up operations began.

The X-Press Pearl is one of many plastic pollution shipping incidents detailed in the 37-page report with the authors admitting the actual amount of pollution from lost containers is currently impossible to track.

“Unfortunately, most spills of plastics and chemicals tend to fly under the radar, especially if the spills occur further out at sea,” the report noted.

To better understand the potential toxicity of the plastic pollution, CEJ collected samples of pellets and plastic debris from four coastal locations. The samples were analysed for heavy metals, benzotriazole UV (BUV) stabilizers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), bisphenols, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

 

The analytical results tell a tale of pollutants matching the complexity of the ship’s cargo. Importantly, they confirm that the consequences of the spill are not just physical hazards, but also chemical in nature.

 

The health and environmental effects of the different chemicals, metals, and plastics include corrosion, cancer, and endocrine disruption. For some of the substances present, no exposure limits can be considered safe; also some of the chemicals persist in the environment. Particularly concerning were the levels found for PAHs, which far exceeded safe limits set in the EU.

In addition to assessing the chemical pollutants and their potential consequences, IPEN and CEJ met with communities in three affected coastal areas and conducted a survey with over 100 participants.

The fishing communities tell of lost income, destroyed nets, decreased catch, changes in the sea, and in some cases allergic symptoms following the accident.

“The X-Press Pearl disaster reveals the complexity of shipping chemicals. All steps should be under scrutiny to ensure this accident is not repeated. Our report shows these accidents have huge consequences on the environment and economies,” said Chalani Rubesinghe, project planning and management officer with CEJ.

Therese Karlsson, IPEN science and technical advisor, added: “As containerships are becoming bigger and transporting increasingly complex mixtures of chemicals, this incident must be considered the oil spill of our times. To protect coastal communities, it is therefore crucial that prevention, mitigation, and regulatory measures are adapted to tackle the risks associated with today’s shipping patterns.”

 

IPEN and CEJ suggest current legislation and practices are insufficient to mitigate the risks of poorly packaged chemicals and the sheer number of different chemicals transported by containerships.

 

The International Maritime Organization is currently discussing how to address the loss of plastic pellets at sea and better track containers lost at sea.

Currently around 1,000 containers are lost each year. Sri Lanka has submitted a proposal to classify plastic pellets as hazardous substances, and Vanuatu has presented one addressing the reporting of containers lost at sea.

”It is significant that developing island states located along the busiest maritime routes are taking a lead here. As global trade grows, their coastal communities are threatened by toxic chemicals and plastic pollution from shipping incidents that could cause them long-lasting or irreversible damage,” said Hemantha Withanage, chairman of Friends of the Earth International.

In light of the report’s findings, IPEN and CEJ have published a list of recommendations for local communities in Sri Lanka, as well as for national and international bodies.

These include establishing systems for reporting lost containers and their content to facilitate mitigation and prevention strategies and to get plastic pellets classified as hazardous substances.