Turkey’s Asbestos Dilemma 2021 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



The furore over news that an asbestos-laden aircraft carrier was destined for scrapping at a Turkish shipyard1 has brought to the fore the failure of the country to address the invisible but deadly legacy caused by the commercial use of around one million tonnes of asbestos,2 the presence of naturally occurring asbestos in rural areas3 and the consequences of hazardous working conditions in ship recycling/scrapping yards.

Under Turkish law – as laid down in Social Insurance Regulation for Medical Affairs legislation – the following asbestos-related diseases are recognized as being occupationally caused: asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, pleural diseases and other unspecified cancers. Despite the official acknowledgement of the links between workplace exposures to asbestos and the occurrence of these diseases, a 2013 survey of data from European countries cited n/a (not available) under columns purporting to show the total number of Turkish cases of: asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma and pleural plaques cases recognized as occupationally-caused over a 20+ year period.4

Commenting on the absence of Turkish data, the researchers wrote:

“Little data exists about the respiratory health effects of occupational asbestos exposure in Turkey. Asbestosis incidences are estimated at up to 10 cases per year. According to a research study of asbestos cement plant workers in Turkey from 2006, median worksite asbestos dust concentration in tested plants was 0.22 fibre/cm3 of air (Akkurt et al., 2006). The concentration was higher than that of the strictest occupational exposure limits in the world for chrysotile asbestos (Directive 83/477/EEC: 0.1 fibre/ cm3 of air). An increased risk of asbestosis and lung function abnormality is expected.”5

It seems that little had changed in Turkey by 2018 with the Social Security Institution (SGK) reporting that government data showed that “the number of workplace accidents and occupational disease-related fatalities in Turkey had significantly dropped in recent years and was now around 600,” whilst the Workers’ Health and Work Safety Assembly, a Turkish NGO, reported that occupational accidents had claimed 1,923 lives in Turkey in 2018 and that “a further 12,0006 were estimated to have died of occupation-related diseases during the same period.”7

Confirming the disconnect between the government’s figures and the deadly toll taken by occupational injuries and diseases in Turkey, health and safety campaigner Asli Odman told delegates to the 2018 UK Hazards Campaign Conference that getting an official diagnosis of an occupational disease in Turkey was “incredibly complicated,”8 and that people who die from these diseases remain “totally invisible” due to the lack of government data. 9 “Officially,” Ms Odman said “since 2013, no one has died of work-related diseases in Turkey.”

The news that the winning bid in the March 12, 2021 auction of the Brazilian vessel the São Paulo – which had, as the FS Foch, been part of the French navy until it was sold in 2000 – was made by a Brazilian company (Cormack Marítima) on behalf of the ship-breaking company: SÖK Denizcilikve Tic Ltd. from Aliağa, Izmir, Turkey10 received a mixed reception. Whilst relief was expressed by environmental campaigners who welcomed the news that the ship was going to an EU approved shipyard for dismantling and not to an Asian scrapping beach, technical experts, workers’ rights and environmental organizations in Turkey were concerned about the presence of an estimated 600 tonnes of asbestos and other toxic substances onboard the vessel.11

In a March 29, 2021 press release by the Turkish Asbestos Removal Experts Association (ASUD), its President Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari posed a number of questions regarding the ship’s impending arrival in Turkey:

  • what steps have been taken to ensure that the dispatch of the ship to Turkey would be compliant with provisions of the EU Ship Recycling Regulation that mandate vessels must carry a certified Inventory of Hazardous Materials?
  • how could the stipulations of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal be respected when the export of toxic waste – the ship was believed to contain 600 tonnes of asbestos plus other toxic material – was specifically banned?
  • would there be independent verification of working practices at the Aliağa shipyard; would provisions under Turkey’s Regulation on Health and Safety Measures in Working with Asbestos be respected?
  • over the last five years, how much asbestos had been stripped from ships at the Aliağa recycling facility; where and how was the asbestos waste disposed?

Last week Turkey’s Ministers of Environment, Family, Health and Transport were asked for reassurances that the dismantling of the asbestos-contaminated aircraft carrier in Aliağa would not cause a public health and environmental disaster.12 During his Parliamentary intervention, Izmir MP Murat Bakan, from the opposition party CHP, inquired whether the Ministry of Health had a road map for treating the health issues of people living near the site where the dismantling would be conducted; he also requested that the four Ministers explain why no consultations had taken place with local people, NGOs or technical experts about a decision which could endanger their lives, pollute their communities and contaminate the environment.

Since the news was released about the purchase of the São Paulo, there has been an outburst on social media from civil society groups in Turkey about the occupational, environmental and public health hazards posed by scrapping the warship in Aliağa. Traditional media has also reported on concerns expressed by the Asbestos Association of Recycling Professionals, Istanbul Health and Safety Labour Watch and the Aegean Environment and Culture Platform (EGEÇEP), all of which condemned the government’s apparent support for dirty and deadly technologies and commercial activities which infringed the constitutional rights of Turkish people to live in a healthy environment.13 EGEÇEP’s spokesperson, public health physician Dr Ali Osman Karababa was outraged at the prioritization of profits over health:

“Our country and society do not gain in the process of dismantling the ship and the related process. On the contrary, our people have to live in a dirty environment and have to pay the social costs resulting from this, lose their health, and their quality of life deteriorates. As a result, it is the people who lose…”14

On April 9, 2021, it was reported that the Aliağa Port Authority had received a petition from groups objecting to the dismantling: “We do not want,” the critics said “ships to enter our territorial waters to be recycled. The ship dismantling yard should be closed.”15 According to scientific expert Prof. Dr. Ertuğrul Barka, it was likely that the São Paulo contained a cocktail of hazardous material:

“asbestos is dangerous, but even more serious is that these ships contain heavy oils, heavy metals and radioactive material. This was France's nuclear ship. It roamed the seas of the world for the political and economic interests of French imperialism. The French state will destroy our country ecologically while protecting the health and nature of its people. This is ecological imperialism, France.” 

Derisory comments from civil society groups indicated that a legal challenge could be mounted to block the São Paulo’s transit into Turkey unless credible evidence was produced showing the vessel did not pose a serious threat to the lives of Turkish workers and members of the public.

As stated in the first paragraph of this article, before asbestos had been banned (2010), Turkey had consumed around 1 million tonnes of asbestos. The frantic pace of urban renewal throughout a country sitting on two major earthquake faults16 and the failure by national and municipal authorities to enforce regulations has resulted in a free-for-all. While some projects come under some supervision, the majority do not.17 Denouncing the uncontrolled demolition of a building in Erzurum last year (2020), asbestos removal specialist Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari said:

“We learned yesterday that the building was demolished without asbestos detection and the dust suppression system was not irrigated in the demolition carried out in the heart of the city on Çaykara Street in Yakutiye district of Yakutiye… We have learned that these works were carried out with the knowledge and permission of Erzurum Metropolitan Municipality.”18

The disposal of the São Paulo – a ship built in France but sold to Brazil – is a tricky issue. There is no capacity to dismantle it safely in Brazil and it is highly unlikely the French authorities would be willing to accept responsibility for its dismantling without public pressure. With grassroots momentum in Turkey building daily and political and public criticism growing, the saga of the São Paulo is far from over. As of now the Ministry of Environmental Affairs has not officially approved the São Paulo’s entry into Turkey; whether the Government will consider the increasingly vocal opposition to the vessel’s scrapping in an Izmir shipbreaking yard whilst making its decision remains to be seen. Commenting on the significance of these developments, Professor Asli Odman said:

“The dismantling of the São Paulo in Izmir is well on its way to becoming a cause célèbre with public opposition being voiced not only by NGOs but by local political leaders, technical experts and union organizers. I could see the vessel becoming the poster child for a national campaign over Turkey’s sustained failure to address its toxic asbestos legacy. Our constitution guarantees citizens the right to live in a safe environment, free from toxic exposures. Civil society groups are gearing up to ensure that every possible protection is afforded to those who work on the dismantling of the ship, to other workers in the recycling yard as well as to local people. We will face up to the challenge posed by the ship’s arrival in Turkey, organize alongside environmental, labour and health activists and do our utmost to ensure that the government and shipyard authorities honor their obligations.”

April 14, 2021


1 CHP'li Murat Bakan, 600 ton asbest taşıyan gemiyi 4 bakana sordu [CHP's Murat Bakan asked 4 ministers about the ship carrying 600 tons of asbestos].

2 Demir, BM, Ercan, S. et al. Türkiye’nin Asbest Profili ve Asbest Güvenliği Sorunu [Turkey’s Asbestos Profile and Safety Problem of Asbestos]. 2018.

3 Metintas, S. et al. Turkey National Mesothelioma Surveillance and Environmental Asbestos Exposure Control Program. November, 2017.

4 Asbestos-related occupational diseases in Central and East European Countries. 2013.

5 Ibid, page 24.

6 A peer reviewer of this text pointed out that, in her opinion, the figure of 12,000 deaths due to occupational diseases in 2018 was a “conservative” estimate.

7 Occupational diseases: Turkey’s hidden epidemic. December 24, 2019.

8 #IWMD19 special report: Making work-related murders visible in Turkey. Hazards issue 145; 2019.

9 Based on World Health Organization data, Turkish health and safety campaigners estimated that up to 350,000 cases of occupationally-related diseases occurred every year in Turkey; data from the Turkish Social Security Institution, however, documented only 597 such cases in 2016.
#IWMD19 special report: Making work-related murders visible in Turkey. Hazards issue 145; 2019.

10 “Sök Denizcilik” has officially been approved by the EU and is now in the list of “EU Approved Ship Recycling Facilities.” February 12, 2020.

11 Vinholes, T. Porta-aviões São Paulo será desmantelado na Turquia [Aircraft carrier São Paulo to be dismantled in Turkey]. March 18, 2021.

12 Toprak, V. İzmir’e getirilen 600 ton asbestli gemiye tepki! [Reaction to 600 tons of asbestos in ships brought to Izmir!]. April 5, 2021.

13 Brezilya'nýn 600 ton asbest barýndýran uçak gemisi İzmir’de sökülecek [Brazil’s aircraft carrier with 600 tons of asbestos will be dismantled in Izmir]. April 1, 2021.

14 ibid.

15 Bir zehir gemisi daha Türkiye yolunda [Turkey towards a more poison ship]. April 9, 2021.

16 İzmir’de yüzbinler tehlikede: 'Katil toz' uyarısı [Hundreds of thousands in danger in Izmir: 'Killer dust' warning]. April 9, 2021.

17 Kentsel dönüşümün yoğunca yaşandığı ülkemizde asbest sorun omaya devam ediyor [Growing problem of asbestos in urban transformation in Turkey]. April 2, 2021.

18 ASUD Başkanı Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari: Kentsel dönüşüm, kansere dönüşüm olmasın [ASUD President Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari: Urban transformation, no transformation into cancer]. December 29, 2020.



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