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Fiberglass fueled a boating boom. But now abandoned and aging boats are breaking down, releasing toxins and microplastics around the world.
Where do old ships go to die? The cynical answer is that they put them on eBay for a few pennies in the hopes that they will become the problem of some other ignorant dreamer.
As a marine biologist, I am increasingly aware that the casual disposal of fiberglass boats is harming our coastal marine life. The problem of end-of-life canister management and disposal has become global, with some island nations even concerned about their already overloaded landfill.
The strength and durability of fiberglass transformed the boating industry and made possible the mass production of small pleasure boats (larger vessels such as cruise ships or fishing trawlers need a stronger material such as aluminum or steel). Yet the boats that were built in the fiberglass boom of the 1960s and '70s are dying.
We need a drain hole for old boats. We can sink them, bury them, cut them into pieces, grind them or even fill them with compost and make a large welcome sign, in the middle of the roundabouts of the coastal towns.
But there are too many and we are running out of space. To add to the problem, the hurricane season wreaks havoc on marinas in some parts of the world, with 63,000 vessels damaged or destroyed after Irma and Harvey in the Caribbean in 2017 alone.
Most ships are currently heading to the landfill. However, many are also removed at sea, usually simply by drilling a hole in the hull and letting it sink somewhere offshore.
Some say the thrown fiberglass boats will make suitable artificial reefs. However, very little research has been done on disposal at sea and the concern is that over time these ships will degrade and move with the currents and damage coral reefs, eventually breaking down into microplastics. Scientists have recently investigated damage to mangrove, seagrass, and coral habitats, and while the effects have only been recorded relatively locally for now, the cumulative effect of abandoned boats may increase exponentially in the coming years.
To take an example, researchers at the University of Plymouth found high concentrations of copper, zinc, and lead in sediment samples and inside the guts of ragworms in two estuaries in eastern England (Orwell and Blackwater). These contaminants greatly exceeded environmental quality guidelines, and came from peeling paint from boats abandoned nearby.
Since no registration is required for pleasure boats, boats are often unloaded once the cost of disposal exceeds the resale value, becoming the responsibility of the unfortunate owner. Human health hazards arise from the chemicals or materials used on the boat: rubber, plastic, wood, metal, textiles, and of course, oil. Additionally, asbestos was widely used as an insulator in exhausts, and lead paints were commonly used as a corrosion inhibitor, along with mercury-based tributyltin (TBT) compounds as antifouling agents. Although we lack evidence on the human impact of TBT, lead and mercury are recognized as neurotoxins.
And then there are the repairs: Grinding fiberglass boats, often outdoors, creates clouds of dust in the air. Workers have not always worn masks, and some succumbed to asbestosis-like illnesses. Inevitably some of the dust would go back into the water.
Fiberglass is either filtered by marine shellfish (in my own research I found up to 7,000 small fragments in oysters at Chichester Harbor in southern England) or cling to the shells of tiny water fleas and sink them to the seabed . The particulate material accumulated in the shellfish stomach can block their intestinal pathways and eventually lead to death through malnutrition and starvation.
Microparticles trapped in water fleas can have repercussions for swimming and locomotion in general, limiting the organisms' ability to detect prey, feed, reproduce, and evade predators. There is huge potential for these tiny specks from old ships to accumulate in larger animals as they are transferred up the food chain.
Those microparticles are the resins that hold the fiberglass together and contain phthalates, a massive group of chemicals associated with serious impacts on human health from ADHD to breast cancer, obesity and male fertility problems.
Abandoned boats are now a common sight on many estuaries and beaches, leaking heavy metals, micro glass and phthalates - we really need to start paying attention to the danger they pose to human health and threats to the local ecology.