Container ship accidents at sea ought to be thought of the “oil spills of our time”, warned environmental organisations that discovered a poisonous mixture of metals, carcinogenic and different dangerous chemical compounds on plastic washed up on Sri Lanka’s seashores after a cargo ship fireplace.

When the X-Press Pearl sank off 9 nautical miles off Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, in Could 2021, essentially the most “vital hurt” from the nation’s worst maritime catastrophe initially got here from the spillage of 1,680 tonnes of plastic pellets, or “nurdles”, into the Indian Ocean. They have been present in lifeless dolphins, fish and on seashores – in some locations 2 metres deep. A UN report referred to as it the “single largest plastic spill” in historical past.

However a brand new research, from Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) and the Worldwide Pollution Elimination Community (IPEN), a coalition of NGOs in 124 nations, mentioned the nurdle spill was the “tip of the iceberg” of environmental hurt from the accident.

Researchers analysed samples of nurdles and burnt lumps of plastic from 4 Sri Lankan seashores for heavy metals and numerous chemical compounds, together with benzotriazole UV-stabilisers, that are used to forestall discoloration in plastics, bisphenols and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

They discovered heavy metals in addition to chemical compounds that each trigger most cancers and are “endocrine-disrupting”, or interfering with hormones. Of specific concern, they mentioned, have been ranges of PAHs discovered on the burnt lumps, which far exceeded protected limits for client merchandise set by the EU. For some substances, no degree of publicity is taken into account protected.

A crab roams on a seaside coated with polythene pellets, or nurdles, washed ashore from the burning X-Press Pearl off Colombo. {Photograph}: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Dr Therese Karlsson, a science adviser at IPEN and co-author of the research, mentioned: “Till now, there hasn’t been any publicly obtainable chemical evaluation of the spill. The chemical compounds have largely been neglected as a result of they don’t seem to be seen.”

Whereas the nurdle spillage was “catastrophic”, Karlsson mentioned, it was “the tip of the iceberg” because of the chemical compounds current – particularly BPA, which is used to make plastic and epoxy resins.

“We discovered bisphenol-A (BPA), which is a possible human carcinogen and has been linked to all the things from melancholy, to respiratory illness, to breast and colon most cancers,” she mentioned. “It is usually an endocrine disruptor.”

Of 1,486 containers carried on the vessel, 80 have been classed as “harmful items” together with caustic soda and nitric acid. The ship additionally carried epoxy resins, utilized in paints and primers, ethanol, and lead ingots, used to make automobile batteries.

The research concluded that present laws and practices are inadequate to mitigate the danger of poorly packaged chemical compounds on ships.

“Delivery is rising, with 90% of the world’s commerce moved by sea,” mentioned Karlsson. “The cargo of those ships is a lot extra advanced in the present day. However the rules haven’t stored up.”

Chalani Rubesinghe, of CEJ, mentioned the catastrophe had uncovered the complexity of transport chemical compounds. “These accidents have enormous penalties on the atmosphere and economies,” she mentioned.

The security fee of the Worldwide Maritime Group (IMO) has been discussing the way to monitor containers and deal with the lack of pellets at sea.

Sri Lanka has requested the IMO to categorise plastic pellets as poisonous substances, and Vanuatu is asking for higher reporting of containers misplaced at sea.

The Sri Lankan authorities mentioned this week that clearing the wreck and particles of the sunken ship would take 4 months. They’ve filed an interim declare for damages of $40m (£30m) with the operator of the X-Press Pearl.