Science & Environment

Shipping chemical 'unsafe for birds'

Dead gannet
Image caption The RSPB says the number of birds affected by the spill has now reached 4,000

Wildlife charities are calling for tighter regulations to protect seabirds from a group of chemicals that caused hundreds of seabirds to be washed up off the south coast of England.

The number of seabirds affected by the recent spill of polyisobutene (PIB) has now reached 4,000, said the RSPB.

The sticky chemical is used as a lubricant in ships' engines.

It is also moved in large quantities, as it is used to make chewing gum, adhesive tape and sealants.

The organisations are appealing to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to "reclassify" the chemical.

The RSPB said in a statement: "The risk of PIB is seriously underestimated.

"We are urging the government to call on the IMO to urgently review [its] hazard classification and implement regulations and a systematic monitoring programme that prevent any further tragic and wholly avoidable incidents like the one just witnessed."

Currently, it is legal to discharge PIB in small quantities, based on certain conditions as set out by the international MARPOL Convention (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships).

But the group of charities, which includes the Wildlife Trusts, the Marine Conservation Society and the RSPCA, wants this to be stopped.

"Even if it's legitimately discharged, it's clearly harmful," said an RSPB spokesperson.

Industry support

The joint call is being supported by the industry body, the UK Chamber of Shipping.

Alec Taylor, marine policy officer for the RSPB, said that, with this support, he was hopeful that the UK government could "push for tighter regulations preventing the discharge of PIB into the sea for good".

The organisations have timed their call to coincide with the latest assembly of the IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee, which takes place in London from 13 to 17 May.

David Balston, director of safety and environment at the UK Chamber of Shipping, admitted that no regulation could eliminate the possibility of illegal activity.

He added: "We strongly support an urgent review to see how best to help prevent a recurrence of the recent deaths and injury to wildlife."

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Media captionResearchers identified the substance in April

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is still investigating the exact cause of this incident and the vessel responsible.

It said: "The MCA has been collecting data of the ships that passed through the area during a specific time frame, and has been looking through detailed cargo manifests.

"The number of tankers currently being investigated further stands at seven.

"If the MCA can locate any ship that was responsible for an illegal discharge, then we will take steps to prosecute."

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