Environmentalists slammed a decision by Bangladesh's government that eased restrictions on shipbreaking in the impoverished South Asian country, saying tens of thousands of people could be exposed to toxic waste.
An industry association praised the move, however, saying it will benefit the country's economy.
The government amended a law late Sunday allowing the world's largest shipbreaking industry to no longer require documentation from selling nations' environmental authorities certifying the vessels were free of toxic substances.
Bangladesh's ship-breaking sector was hit hard by tougher environmental rules imposed in January that required such certification. Domestic prices of iron also skyrocketed nearly 20 percent after the move.
Ship-breaking is a major business in Asia, supplying scrap steel to a region hungry for industrial materials. But critics say its workers face death or poisoning from toxins.
Up to 1,000 ships are broken down each year, mostly in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan and to a lesser degree China and Turkey, according to industry estimates.
Many ships, some as tall as 15-story buildings and as long as several football fields, are not broken up in the West because they are full of dangerous materials such as asbestos that would not pass health standards.
Zafar Alam, president of Bangladesh Shipbreakers Association, said Monday the government's decision would benefit the construction sector, which largely depends on recycled steel extracted from such vessels.
"This is a very good decision for the interest of the country," Alam told The Associated Press by phone. "Now it will be easier for us to move forward."
Environmentalists blasted the decision, however, saying tens of thousands of people working in shipyards or living along the coast in southern Bangladesh would be exposed to dangerous toxins left on the ships to be broken down.
"We are against this decision since toxic ships will come to Bangladesh posing a serious threat to the people," said Abu Naser Khan, a spokesman for the Save Environment Movement. "The ships can come here, but they must be freed from toxic elements before entering Bangladesh's waters."
Khan said some 2,000 ships are expected to be abandoned in Europe alone by 2012, and many are expected to end up in Bangladesh's scrap yards.
About 20,000 workers are employed in 50 ship-breaking facilities in the Chittagong district.