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Aged ships a toxic export

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With prospects cooling for the global economy, legions of older commercial ships now plying the world's oceans are expected to be scrapped when shipping volumes fall from current high levels and they become uneconomical to operate.

The London-based International Mari­time Organization is developing tougher global ship-recycling standards to protect workers and the environment. But these won't take effect until 2013 at the earliest – too late to offer meaningful protection from the coming surge of old ships.

Before they take effect, hundreds of ships weighing a total of 55 million tons – more than double the volume of the past five years – may be scrapped, a European Commission study on the global ship-scrapping industry estimated last year. A peak of 18 million tons of ships is expected in 2010.

"We all know about this looming problem," says Frank Stuer-Lauridsen, a Copenhagen-based maritime expert who co-wrote the study. "But nobody seems to have the energy to address this interim period, and the signs are not good."

While "green" ship recycling using sustainable environmental and safe labor practices is maturing in the US and elsewhere, the lure of higher prices paid by unsafe, polluting ship-scrapping operations overseas is strong, experts say. As a result, "the vast majority" of European Union-flagged vessels "along with the rest of the world's obsolete vessels" still make their last voyages to beaches and ship yards in India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan where safety practices are far less stringent, the EC report found.

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