Fumigants have a downside; they can kill humans as well

In an article on the safe use of fumigants on vessels, Skuld technical manager Martin Øhre observed that fumigants were the preferred choice when it came to preventing insect population when transporting agricultural products in bulk by sea. However, he warned that fumigants were often just as poisonous to humans as they were to the pests against which they were being used.

It was, therefore, crucially important that only qualified operators undertook fumigation operations. Skuld noted however that, sadly, fumigants continued to injure or even kill seafarers.

Fumigants act in a gaseous phase, even though they may be applied as solid or liquid formulations from which the gas arises. Effective and safe use requires the space that is being treated with fumigants to be rendered gastight for the period of exposure. A “fumigator-in-charge” should be designated by the fumigation company, government agency or appropriate authority and provide the Master with written instructions on the type of fumigant used, the hazards to human health involved and the precautions to be taken.

The task of ensuring cargo holds’ integrity should not be taken lightly as this operation is key to ensuring crew safety.

Skuld strongly recommended that special attention is given to potential leakages from and/or through:

  • cable locks
  • ventilation systems
  • ballast systems
  • duct keels
  • bilges
  • wiring ducts
  • dehumidifiers
  • compartments of the engine room
  • any other sort of piping arrangements connected to parts of the cargo hold

After application of the fumigant, an initial check should be made by the fumigator-in-charge together with trained representatives of the Master for any leakage which, if detected, should be effectively sealed. Ventilation procedures on board the vessel during the voyage should be scrutinised with regards to the possibilities of drawing in the fumigant gas. Only when the Master is satisfied that all precautions detailed in the “Recommendations on the Safe Use of Pesticides in Ships” in the IMDG Code are adhered to, should the vessel be allowed to sail.

Throughout the voyage, gas concentration safety checks should be performed at eight-hour intervals by crew trained in operating the relevant instruments in all appropriate locations. Readings should be recorded in the deck logbook.

In case any symptoms of phosphine poisoning occur, such as nausea, vomiting, headache and cough, the person should leave the compartment and seek medical advice immediately.

Skuld said that, sadly, fatalities still occurred as a result of fumigants having entered areas occupied by crew via cable locks and ventilation systems. Such incidents occur both on newer and older tonnage, and the issue therefore commands the attention of all shipowners, the writer said.