Health risks from fumigated ship containers

Ship containers are sometimes fumigated with pesticides to protect goods during transport from pests and fungi. This also prevents the spread of insects or other pests from one country to another. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has received reports of health impairments suffered by the dock workers who opened these containers. Furthermore, there may be a potential risk for consumers when fumigants remain in products or foods. In order to access the available information, BfR staged a meeting for experts from Germany and the Netherlands. According to their findings problems are caused when the transport documents of the fumigated containers do not make any mention of fumigation and the containers have not been labelled, as stipulated, with warnings for the transport of hazardous goods. "The proportion of fumigated containers which are being transported without warnings is relatively high according to the information available to us", says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of BfR. The Institute is, therefore, of the opinion that more controls are needed in the larger sea ports in Germany and the Netherlands.

According to the international regulations for hazardous goods, warnings for fumigated containers must be kept in place, even after ventilation, until the goods have been unloaded. With good reason: containers that are not labelled and still contain toxic gas can pose a health threat to the people who open them. They are mainly the staff of the inspection authorities and dock workers who unload the containers but also people who, for instance, transport their belongings in containers when they move house and open them on arrival. The crew on board transport ships is also exposed to risks during the voyage. Most of the health impairments reported to BfR were minor like respiratory disorders. However, the Institute is aware of individual cases of severe intoxication, from other sources.

In order to protect consumers and the above-mentioned professional groups, participants in the expert meeting called for more controls and stricter sanctions in the case of violations of the provisions for the transport of hazardous goods. Only a few chemical agents are used for container fumigation and the inspection measurements could be restricted to them.

Fumigant residues evaporate when the goods transported in the containers are ventilated. Depending on their condition this may take anything from a few hours up to several weeks. However, no reliable statements on the release rates from specific materials were possible up to now. Based on the evaluation of the limited data available, BfR estimates the risk to consumers as being relatively low in general. In individual cases, however, health impairments cannot be ruled out from products with a longer out-gassing period that consumers come into contact with like mattresses, cuddly toys and varnished wood.

The experts are of the opinion that there is a need for research above all on measurement methods. Both the methods for on site inspections in the containers as well as measurements of the release of gases from products have to be standardised and validated. The latter is the precondition for being able to estimate potential risks for consumers. From the angle of occupational health and safety there is also a need for test criteria in order to be able to decide whether it is safe to open and enter a container.

The presentations at the expert meeting can be accessed on the BfR website ( The BfR brochure "Medical Notifications of Poisonings 2007" contains details of intoxication incidents.

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