BY JOHN GUGLIELMO
The Elk Grove Village (IL) Fire Department covers a large industrial area that includes more than 3,500 businesses located within a specific area of the village and responds to numerous haz-mat incidents throughout the year.
Chicago’s O’Hare Airport-which re-ceives numerous cargo shipments, many from overseas-is nearby. The department has responded to several calls for leaking containers only to find poor labeling or labels printed in another language. Often, it is difficult to contact a manufacturer or shipper from another country because of the time difference. In these situations, we often find it easier to contact the intended recipient of the shipment, who usually would be familiar with it. Sometimes, just trying to track down the container’s owner is difficult.
The product often may be incorrectly packed, resulting in dangerous load shifting during transport, which presents the haz-mat team with an unpleasant and even dangerous surprise when they open the container. Fumigants may be used to rid the container of insects so that it can pass United States Customs. Sometimes, pesticides are used improperly because of a lack of training in proper application in the container’s country of the origin.
Even if the container has just ordinary cargo, there is generally no indication of whether the ordinary contents might have been treated with something dangerous to one’s health. This is what happened to employees at a U.S. freight-forwarding company when it received a cargo container from India.
The call came in at 1327 hours on Friday, October 13, 2000. It was Friday the 13th, and there was a full moon that evening, which made this whole incident seem even more bizarre. The call indicated some unknown type of chemical problem at a freight shipping facility in which employees were feeling ill. The freight company involved receives most of its products from overseas and distributes them to various customers in the United States. The first-arriving unit, Engine 8, met with a company representative who stated that several employees were feeling ill. Because this call came in as a potential chemical incident, the haz-mat team also responded. Engine 8’s officer was a haz-mat team member. The shipping company’s representative stated that it had received a shipment from India in a cargo container the day before; two employees unloaded the shipment. These employees said the container exuded a strong odor and an unknown white material covered the wooden crates inside. They unloaded the container and did not tell anyone else at this time. After they went home that evening, both employees reported that they suffered from nausea, vomiting, and nosebleeds. They came into work for their normal shift the next day still suffering from headaches.
The odor was now inside the warehouse, and other employees complained about feeling ill. At that point, the company called the fire department. The company stated that the shipper in India had had several shipments returned to it by U.S. Customs because of insect infestation and had been instructed to fumigate future containers with a pesticide, a common practice for overseas cargo. Usually, the pesticide used breaks down quickly, long before the shipment reaches the United States.
However, for some reason, even though the container had been at sea for 35 days, the pesticide remained potent. The company also stated the container had an excessive amount of moisture in it and that the crates were covered with a white and gray substance. The crates held 98 polished gravestones, each weighing between 400 and 1,000 pounds. The haz-mat team leader and I were called to the scene. We had two concerns on arrival: Why did the pesticide not break down? and What was the white and gray fuzzy substance on the wooden crates? We found an empty bag of pesticide with the crates; it was phorate 10-percent dry powder. The label provided some information, but most of it was in a foreign language. We accessed information regarding the chemical on a database, and the exposure symptoms seemed to match those reported by the employees. But that still did not explain everything.
We were concerned that the white and gray material covering the wooden crates might be some type of mold. It looked like mold and may have formed as a result of the high moisture content in the container. We sent a sample of the substance to a lab at the University of Chicago, where specialists could determine if this were some kind of toxic mold or just a combination of ordinary mold and the phorate pesticide. The building was sealed off, and employees were advised not to enter until the test results returned. The results came back the next morning. They indicated that the phorate was the primary concern; the mold was an ordinary wood mold and was not toxic.
After contacting the shipper in India, which we could not do that evening because of the time difference, we understood what had happened.
To avoid having U.S. Customs return the container because of infestation, the shipper had sent this shipment to another Indian company to be fumigated. According to the product information for phorate, the pesticide is supposed to be diluted in water and then sprayed on the item to be fumigated. The fumigation company decided that more was better, did not dilute the pesticide, and instead sprayed all the wooded crates with water and then applied the phorate powder directly on the crates. The water was to keep the powder on the crates.
This application method involved an excessive amount of highly concentrated pesticide that could not break down naturally in the limited space of the shipping container. Also, the excessive amount of water used created a condition favorable for the mold to grow. It covered almost every inch of the wooden crates. The mold encapsulated the pesticide, which also prevented it from breaking down.
Once the container was opened and the contents moved around, phorate-tainted mold became airborne and was inhaled by the employees working in the area.
The shipper called in a cleanup company to remove and dispose of all the crates and clean the cargo container. The company summoned an industrial hygienist to come in to sample the ventilation system to ascertain that it was clear of any phorate and mold.
- Always use caution in responding to haz-mat incidents involving any cargo from foreign countries. Even a shipment of ordinary cargo, such as these gravestones, could be treated with toxic chemicals that may be applied incorrectly.
- Don’t rely on container labeling to identify an unknown substance. Labeling may be incorrect, incomplete, or nonexistent. Moreover, the labeling may just identify the contents of the container. It will not necessarily say anything about whether the container or its contents had been treated with any chemicals.
- Know where to go to identify unknown substances. The shipper or receiver may not be available to provide information immediately or may not have it at all. Find out what chemical databases, testing laboratories, and other identification resources are available in your response area.
- Full chemical protective clothing is the only choice when dealing with unknown substances. In this case, the victims inhaled the phorate-contaminated airborne spores. Most pesticides can enter the body rapidly through the skin, too.
JOHN GUGLIELMO is a lieutenant with the Elk Grove Village (IL) Fire Department, where he has served for 15 years. He has a background in chemistry and is a 12-year member of the haz-mat team on which he serves as team leader responsible for training.