Aliaga Ship Breaking (Credit:

Turkey’s Aliağa shipbreaking centre – the only location in Europe for processing large passenger vessels and aircraft carriers – has been criticised for threatening the health of workers and nearby residents. 

Handling an average of 900,000 tonnes of scrap a year, the site’s 22 ship recycling centres are located on Turkey’s western Aegean coast.

Environmentalists and local residents claim that asbestos – which can cause cancer – is being dispersed in the air around Aliağa, despite health and safety regulations intended to protect people and the environment from harm.

Preventative measures established by the central government fall short of alleviating public concern, according to Ali Osman Karababa, spokesman for the Aegean Environment and Culture Platform (EGEÇEP). 

Ali Osman Karababa (Credit: Personal archive)

“Health problems caused by the inhalation of asbestos don’t manifest until after ten to 50 years,” Karababa said, adding that consequences included severe and irreversible issues like asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

“This is why a sound evaluation of the ships is necessary in order to remove the asbestos from the scrap and to transport them to disposal facilities. However, it’s likely that issues will arise at this stage as the Ship Recycling Industry Association [the industry’s own body] conducts inspections,” he said, adding that he believed the inspections were unlikely to be rigorous enough because they are not independent.

Aliağa’s rise as a shipbreaking centre began due to EU regulations introduced in 2013. The new rules prompted some European countries to halt their own shipbreaking activities, and look elsewhere for services. India, China and Bangladesh are the main global centres for shipbreaking, but a further rule introduced in 2018 means that European ships can only be disposed of in facilities approved by the European Commission. Turkey has increasingly taken up this task, and is currently responsible for the dismantling of around 200 ships a year. 

One result is that Aliağa, an industrial port on the Aegean coast that sits close to tourist destinations and ancient archaeological sites, has also become associated with pollution. 

“We know that ships brought into Aliağa from around the world contain high levels of asbestos. The lack of transparency about the actual levels of asbestos only gives more cause for concern,” Karababa said.

The Covid-19 pandemic’s devastating effect on cruise tourism has also prompted the scrapping of commercial ships, increasing demand for services in Aliağa. The complete dismantling of a cruise ship can take up to six months. 

NAe Sao Paulo (Credit:

Some 118 ships were recycled in the district in 2020, according to the Aliağa Ship Recycling Industry Association (GEMİSANDER), returning some 855,000 tonnes of steel in scrap. This is up from 654,000 tonnes in steel from 128 ships dismantled in Aliağa in 2019.

In April this year, environmentalists and locals protested at the arrival of the Brazilian aircraft carrier NAe Sao Paulo to Aliağa when it was revealed that the 265-metre-long vessel contained around 600 tonnes of asbestos, and that proper disposal of the chemicals would be difficult to verify.

“There have already been reports of a lack of health and safety protocol for workers in Aliağa,” Mehmet Şeyhmus Ensari, chair of the Asbestos Disposal Experts Association (ASBEST-DER), told Inside Turkey. He added that the Brazilian vessel contained a large amount of asbestos. 

Mehmet Seyhmus Ensari (Credit: Asbestos Disposal Experts Association)

“We already know that deconstruction in Aliağa isn’t carried out per protocol and isn’t compliant with worker safety regulations. We’ve been told that any inspections are carried out purely on paper and that asbestos is really just released into the environment,” Ensari said, claiming to have seen official reports confirming the practice. “Asbestos released in a ship deconstruction facility in Aliağa will easily spread to downtown.” 

ASBEST-DER says it has evidence of an increase in mesothelioma cases in Aliağa as a result of contamination, and that it plans to take samples to prove the presence of asbestos. The Asbestos and Toxic Waste Association in Aliağa told Inside Turkey that a recent study had revealed the presence of asbestos fibres at the site.

Kamil Önal, chair of the Ship Recycling Industry Association, said that the organisation was appalled by these reports, but disputed some of the claims. 

“Asbestos is removed by experts and environmental engineers prior to the ship deconstruction. The asbestos is sent to disposal centres, and we would be happy to explain this to anyone who visits our facilities,” Önal said, adding that work was carried out in line with government regulations. 

Kamil Önal (Credit: Ship Recycling Industry Association)

“There are claims that have nothing to do with ship dismantling. It’s been said that one out of 55 samples revealed asbestos fibres. We haven’t received a ship with asbestos in the ship dismantling area in a long time. If we do get a ship with asbestos, there’s a protocol that mandates asbestos is removed by experts. Any ship with asbestos is taken apart within these regulations, there’s no environmental impact. We have personal protective equipment, quarantine zones and hygiene facilities. 

He continued, “The samples in question are not from the ship dismantling area. Ships with asbestos have been banned since 2010, and any older ships we get have been cleansed of asbestos after remodelling.”

Helil İnay Kınay (Credit: Environmental Engineers’ Chamber Izmir)

According to İnay Kınay, chair of the Environmental Engineers’ Chamber Izmir, however, Turkey has become a dumping ground for chemicals that other states will not allow across their borders. 

“Home to the only ship dismantling facilities in Turkey, Aliağa is in a delicate condition as it also houses heavy industrial facilities. It’s at capacity right now, and it needs special management conditions,” Kınay said. “Dangerous chemicals released from the ship dismantling facilities and asbestos not only have health risks for the employees working with the substances, but also for the population in the surrounding area.”