Surprises perilous: toxic health hazards for employees unloading fumigated shipping containers

Sci Total Environ. 2011 Aug 1;409(17):3106-13. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2011.04.053. Epub 2011 Jun 1.


The fumigation of freight containers to protect transported goods from fungal and pest infestation has increased worldwide in the last five years due to international regulations requiring fumigation or heat treatment of wooden packaging material and dunnage. We have found in 2008 that every sixth container and its contents do retain harmful concentrations of various fumigants and chemicals, representing a significant health risk for port and transport workers, customs officials, warehousemen, store employees and consumers. The shipping documents of these containers did not provide any information about the fumigation procedure or the used fumigant. We report here the cases of 26 patients introduced to our outpatient clinic with presumed intoxication to fumigants, or with symptoms due to inhaling the air out of fumigated containers. All patients were examined from 2007 to 2010 according to a standardized comprehensive diagnostic program. We were able to confirm the diagnosis based on typical symptoms and extensive clinical examination; by laboratory analysis we identified ethylene dichloride, methyl bromide, phosphine and methylene chloride. The predominant symptoms were headaches, concentration and memory problems, dizziness and nausea, irritation of the skin and mucous membranes and a reduced ability to do exercise. In addition to the neurological and neuropsychological impairments our analyses verified the development of reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS) in 14 of 26 patients with long lasting symptoms due to their contact with fumigants. Intoxications with fumigants are serious and could be avoided. These systematical explored cases show the sustainable impact for health and socio-economic wellbeing. These findings also emphasize the necessity for international standards on permitted fumigants, appropriate labeling in the shipping documents and handling of fumigated containers.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / analysis*
  • Ethylene Dichlorides / analysis
  • Female
  • Fumigation / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons, Brominated / analysis
  • Male
  • Methylene Chloride / analysis
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Exposure / analysis*
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Pesticides / analysis*
  • Phosphines / analysis
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / epidemiology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Transportation


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational
  • Ethylene Dichlorides
  • Hydrocarbons, Brominated
  • Pesticides
  • Phosphines
  • ethylene dichloride
  • Methylene Chloride
  • methyl bromide
  • phosphine