Securing the health of Customs officersBy Wil Grullemans, General Manager, Nordiko Quarantine Systems
In 2016, in Germany, seven workers at a warehouse were hospitalized following the unpacking of two containers. They had inhaled toxic gases invisible to the eye and with no noticeable smell, and were suffering from severe eye irritation, respiratory distress and nausea.
Such incidents rarely make media headlines, although they are not that unusual. Gases present a serious threat to both Customs officials and other personnel who have to enter containers for inspection or unpacking purposes, and many accidents have been reported over the past few years all over the world.
Following the hospitalization of Customs officers working at a major shipping port, tests were performed on containers to assess whether they contained any toxic gases. Air samples were taken through the unopened door seal and then analysed to determine if the air quality inside the container was safe for entry. The operation showed that up to 20% of import containers had unsafe gas levels.
Toxic gases accumulate in containers as a result of fumigation or simply through absorption from products during transit, where temperature and humidity changes promote the off-gassing process. These gases include:
- carcinogens such as formaldehyde (from furniture) or dichloroethane (from plastics);
- cardio pulmonary poisons such as phosphine (from fumigated food products) or methyl bromide (a recognized neurotoxin and listed ozone depleting substance once used extensively for fumigation and as a pesticide);
- respiratory toxins such as hydrogen cyanide (from carpets and rugs).
Apart from instances of acute exposure, such as the one mentioned above, there is a more insidious security concern: Customs officers can receive repeated, low dose exposure to a variety of toxic gases, without realizing that this is occurring.
Some Customs administrations and many large multinational firms are implementing specially designed security solutions that provide for container gas testing and ventilation, but some are still not aware of the need for such systems.