Australia Tackles Toxic Ship Paint Ahead of Ban

BRISBANE, Australia, May 3, 2001 (ENS) - When the Iron Monarch docks in Brisbane Sunday it will be the first vessel in Australia to have new tin-free, anti-fouling paints applied to its hull. It will not be the last if a convention to outlaw toxic tributyltin (TBT), used as an anti-fouling agent in ship paints, is adopted by the International Maritime Organisation this year.

The Iron Monarch is owned by the transportation and logistics arm of Broken Hill Properties (BHP), a global natural resources company.

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BHP Transport and Logistics' roll on/off products carrier, Iron Monarch, unloading slabs at Western Port, Victoria, Australia. (Photos courtesy BHP Transport and Logistics)
Together with Australia's federal government, maritime, paint and coatings industries, the Australian Paint Manufacturers Federation, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Shipowners Association, BHP is testing less toxic alternatives to traditional anti-fouling paints.

TBT is an aggressive biocide that has been used in anti-fouling ship paint since the 1970s. The toxicity of TBT prevents the growth of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on ships' hulls.

But it leaches from the paint and enters the marine environment where it accumulates in sediments, especially in areas with heavy ship traffic such as harbors and ports.

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The common littoral snail known as Nucella fails to develop sex organs even at low concentrations of TBT according to the Norwegian Institute for Water Research. (Photo by Are Pedersen, courtesy Norwegian Institute for Water Research)
TBT disrupts the endocrine system of marine shellfish leading to development of male sex characteristics in female marine snails. It has been found to impair the immune system of organisms and lead to the development of shell malformations in shellfish even after exposure to extremely low levels of TBT in seawater.

In sufficient amounts TBT can cause headaches, vertigo, eye irritation, psycho-neurological disturbance, vomiting, urine retention and skin burns in humans. According to the World Health Organization, TBT is one of the most toxic substances knowingly released into the environment today.

Last summer, Greenpeace research found high levels of TBT contamination in sediment from harbors in Greece, Italy, France and Spain.

Technological developments over the last decade have produced effective alternatives to TBT based paint.

"Through the Anti-fouling Trials, a wide range of TBT-free anti-fouling paints will be tested under normal commercial conditions both to gain industry confidence and to meet registration requirements," said Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill, announcing more than A$300,000 (US$156,000) in funding for the trials.

Hill

Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill. (Photo courtesy Environment Australia)
"The trial will include up to 24 vessels operating in Australian harbors and in offshore waters and encompass both tropical and temperate operational zones," said Hill. "It will run for two years with an option to be extended to five years."

The Iron Monarch has been in service with BHP since 1973 and carries steel from the company's manufacturing plant in Port Kembla, just south of Sydney, to the Port of Hastings, 400 kilometers (248 miles) up the New South Wales coast.

"During the course of the trial, the vessel is expected to make more than 190 visits to the Port of Hastings," said Hill.

"The port has remained relatively free of introduced marine pests in the past and it is a high priority to all stakeholders that it continues to remain in this condition."

Under Australia's Oceans Policy, the government is committed to ban the use of TBT on ships that are repainted in Australian docks by 2006. France, Australia and the United States have already banned the use of TBT on boats.

A worldwide ban could come as early as 2003, if the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopts the Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti-fouling Systems at a diplomatic conference in October.

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Greenpeace activists protest the use of TBT by certain ships docked in the port of Rotterdam last year. (Photo courtesy Fink/Greenpeace)
The IMO is the United Nations' specialized agency responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships.

Last week in London, United Kingdom, the organization's Marine Environment Protection Committee finalized a draft of the anti-fouling convention. The essence of the convention is that ships should no longer be allowed to apply organotin compounds after January 1, 2003, leading to a complete ban by January 1, 2008.

Under the terms of the proposed convention, ships above a certain size would be required to have their anti-fouling systems surveyed and to carry an anti-fouling certificate.

Prohibited or controlled anti-fouling systems would be listed in Annex I of the convention. Initially, the annex would refer to "organotin compounds which act as biocides in anti-fouling systems."

The convention would allow for other substances to be included in the Annex and sets out a procedure for doing this: a proposal for a particular substance to be prohibited or restricted would be put before a group established by IMO which would assess the adverse affects of the particular anti-fouling system.

The Convention would provide an agreed format for an international anti-fouling certificate and set out procedures for survey and certification.