Port workers are under significant risk when in the immediate environment of disposable cylinders, which support a black market in counterfeit refrigerants, according to Wilhelmsen Maritime Services.
In 2011, several refrigerated, reefer containers exploded, killing three port workers.
Counterfeit refrigerant cylinders typically consist of a dangerously unstable cocktail of gases, blended to roughly mimic the most common refrigerant, R-134a.
These cylinders are often loaded with rogue gases such as R-40. Though similar to R-134a, R-40 reacts with aluminium to form trimethylaluminum, a highly volatile substance that, when exposed to air, can explode.
According to international insurer TT Club, R-40 contamination accounts for 0.2% of the world’s reefer container fleet, affecting around 2,500 reefers.
Some operators may be unaware of the potential risks of using counterfeit refrigerants, while others may be seeking to cut costs. However, the main reason these refrigerants continue to circulate is because of the continued existence of disposable cylinders.
Svenn Jacobsen, Technical Product Manager of Refrigeration at Wilhelmsen Ships Services, said: “These cylinders are the container of choice for the counterfeiter. Cheap and untraceable, no counterfeiter is ever going to get any complaints from their customers using this type of packaging.”
Jacobsen explains that counterfeiters offer what appear to be authentic, trademarked refrigerants. Despite the efforts of leading manufacturers such as Honeywell, Linde and Dupont, which have taken legal action to crack down on counterfeiters and changed packaging to discourage fakes, counterfeit refrigerants remain an industry menace.
Jacobsen continues: “If the legitimate refrigerant suppliers no longer provided refrigerants in disposable cylinders, the counterfeiters would be out of business. We don’t support their use and we believe a worldwide ban is far overdue.”
Whether or not a global ban on disposable cylinders will come into force anytime soon is unclear. In 2007, the European Union (EU) banned disposable refrigerant cylinders in the EU and on EU flagged vessels. However, disposable refrigerant cylinders are still in use elsewhere in the world.
While Jacobsen applauds the EU’s move to reduce the environmental impact of R-134a refrigerants, he cautions that these regulations may inadvertently create a strong market for suppliers of counterfeit refrigerants.
He said: “It is likely that the reduction in the supply of EU HFCs [hydrofluorocarbon] will lead to shortages and a sharp spike in costs, meaning some operators will be tempted to purchase lower-price refrigerants. This regulatory change will create an ideal market for counterfeiters.
Jacobsen concluded: “Despite numerous warnings, accidents and fatalities, many operators will be more willing to take a chance on gases packaged in disposable cylinders by unregistered suppliers. We anticipate that the counterfeiters of R-134a are going to be very busy in the years ahead.”