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Chemicals in containers – problems and risks

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Author(s): Caroline Widdowson, Material Emissions Specialist, Markes International

The problem of hazardous chemicals in shipping containers has become a topic of major concern over the last 10 years. The combination of sealed containers and long journey times means that hazardous chemicals can build to a level that would never normally be encountered in domestic or industrial settings. The problem is exacerbated by the massive variety in chemicals involved, the origin of many containers in countries with less strict health and safety controls, and the often poor documentation accompanying the containers.

It has been estimated that about 15 percent of containers contain dangerous levels of chemicals, with about 0.5 percent presenting an immediate risk to health for workers at the receiving port. In the past, workers unaware of the risks have been exposed to these chemicals over long periods of time, and suffered health problems as a result, such as headaches, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

The chemicals involved are often odourless, and fall into two main categories: those used to fumigate the cargo in transit, and those emitted by the cargo itself. Fumigants initially received the greatest attention due to a couple of high profile cases of poisoning, but further large scale studies of containers have shown that chemicals from cargo are of equal, if not greater, concern.

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