Every year, countless containers arrive at the ports of the EU and UK. This is nothing out of the ordinary, as container shipping has been a staple of global trade since the invention of the ISO container. However, over time, the nature of the cargo being imported has undergone significant changes. Along with this transformation in cargo, an invisible and often overlooked problem has emerged: gases present within these containers.
The Perplexing Issue of Container Gases
In spaces where goods are stored in enclosed environments, there exists the potential for these spaces to become unsafe due to natural processes, gas emissions from products, and the use of pest control gases. This issue came to light following several incidents resulting in injuries to workers and customs officials. Despite these incidents, addressing the issue of gases in containers remains a low priority for many organizations. Both businesses and regulatory bodies find it challenging to address this issue effectively.
In the early days of gas detection, the Labor Inspection compiled a list of 14 substances based on available data. Many companies adopted this list as the definitive guide for gas measurements in sea containers. These substances primarily consisted of active fumigants mandated by receiving countries. Methyl bromide for combatting wood-boring beetles and other pests, phosphine for controlling rice weevils in food products, Vikane or sulfuryl fluoride in cases where methyl bromide was prohibited – these were just a few examples. Hydrogen cyanide, along with some volatile organic compounds like benzene and toluene, were also on this list. Formaldehyde made the list as well, forming a diverse collection of substances.
With the technologies available at the time, which relied on electrochemical sensors and tubes – both considered rather traditional methods – there was limited clarity regarding the risks associated with container gases. However, pioneering efforts in measurement techniques and companies willing to invest in research significantly improved our understanding from 2008 onwards. New developments allowed for better and more reliable measurements.
During this period, gas measurement companies invested in more modern measurement techniques. This enabled them to conduct broad-spectrum measurements in many cases, providing a comprehensive overview of the container’s contents in a short time. From detection tubes to Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques, this marked a transition from the industrial age to the computer era. The laboratory that once occupied a room was now condensed into a delivery van. Measurements could be performed at terminals and outside company premises with significantly improved accuracy. However, a downside was that more containers were being rejected, necessitating degassing or ventilation.
Many of the aforementioned gases were often present above the permissible limits, posing a direct or indirect threat to those unloading the containers. They were unknowingly exposed to these gases. Based on historical data, it is plausible that between 6% and 10% of all imported containers contain one or more gases potentially harmful to the individuals unloading them.
Both measurement companies and businesses conducting their measurements were not always adequately prepared for these new gases. The introduction of these gases caused disruptions in the supply chain. Containers needed to be ventilated until the levels of the encountered substances fell below the permissible limits. The use of new measurement techniques has led to increased knowledge among businesses. Some gas measurement companies can even notify their customers of changes in their products based solely on the analysis results.
The issue of gases in containers is a multifaceted challenge that requires the attention of businesses and regulatory bodies alike. The evolution of cargo and advances in measurement technologies have shed light on this hidden hazard, highlighting the need for more robust safety measures and protocols.
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Frequently Asked Questions
- Are all containers at risk of containing harmful gases?
- No, not all containers pose a risk, but a significant percentage may contain harmful gases, especially those used for certain types of cargo.
- What are some of the health risks associated with exposure to these gases?
- Health risks can range from mild respiratory issues to severe poisoning, depending on the type and concentration of gases present.
- How can businesses mitigate the risks associated with container gases?
- Businesses should invest in advanced gas detection technologies and establish clear safety protocols for handling containers with potentially hazardous gases.
- Are there any international regulations governing the handling of container gases?
- Yes, there are international regulations and guidelines for handling hazardous materials in containers, but they may vary by country.
- What steps can customs authorities take to ensure the safety of their personnel when inspecting containers?
- Customs authorities should work closely with businesses, adopt stringent safety measures, and provide proper training to their personnel to minimize the risks associated with container gases.