Faced with an aging aircraft carrier contaminated with hazardous materials, the Brazilian government stirred worldwide controversy when it intentionally sunk the ship over objections from environmental groups.
The 60-year-old carrier São Paulo was “packed with toxic materials,” including cancer-causing asbestos, according to a report by The Guardian newspaper.
Three environmental nongovernmental organizations — Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and the Basel Action Network — issued a joint statement to accuse Brazil of violating “three international treaties” when it intentionally sunk the ship off the Brazilian coast.
The three international treaties are:
- The Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes
- The London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution
- The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Other “environmentally responsible measures could have been adopted, but once again, the importance of protecting the oceans, which are vital for the life of the planet, was treated with negligence,” said Leandro Ramos, director of programs for Greenpeace Brazil.
Reuters reported: “Federal public prosecutors and Greenpeace had asked the Brazilian government to stop the sinking, saying it was ‘toxic’ due to dangerous materials, including 9 tons of asbestos used in paneling.
The news service also quoted a statement by Greenpeace, which said, “The sinking of the aircraft carrier Sao Paulo throws tons of asbestos, mercury, lead and other highly toxic substances into the seabed.”
Why Did Brazil Sink the Ship?
Sinking the aircraft carrier was “planned and controlled,” reported The Guardian. Navy officials said they used the safest area possible, 217 miles off the coast of Brazil where water is 16,000 feet deep.
The aircraft carrier was built in the 1950s for the French Navy. Brazil purchased the ship in 1998, and it was in use through the late 1990s. The carrier was aging, and an onboard fire in 2005 hastened its decline.
In 2021, a Turkish marine recycling company bought the São Paulo but had to return the ship to Brazil after being denied entry to the company’s shipyard by Turkish environmental officials.
“Turkey rescinded its permission to enter, saying Brazil hadn’t been able to prove that the São Paulo was free of asbestos—a toxic mineral used in the construction of many 20th century ships. So, the boat turned around,” Time reported.
Until the last minute, Emerson Miura, a veteran of the Brazilian Air Force, tried to convince navy officials to allow him to turn the São Paulo into a floating museum, the New York Times reported. “Our idea was to rescue patriotism, our pride of being Brazilian,” Miura said. “Brazil doesn’t take care of its history.”
How Is Asbestos Hazardous to Health?
The minute fibers of the six minerals that make up asbestos are durable and resistant to heat and fire. They have been used for a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications since the late 1800s. Among the many places they can be found are insulation, paints and fireproofing.
But when disturbed, the tiny, almost invisible fibers disperse in the air and can get trapped in the lungs to cause serious damage, including scarring the lungs and affecting breathing.
The National Cancer Institute says, “Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen,” and “there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma (a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen), and cancers of the lung, larynx and ovary.”
Can Anything Be Done Now?
According to The Guardian, a “judge overruled a last-minute legal bid to stop the operation, saying that an ‘unplanned’ scuttling could be even worse for the environment than the ‘controlled’ sinking, local media reported. He called the situation ‘tragic and regrettable.’”
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