Innovation gives a toxin-free work environment

Several hundred million containers are transported across the world's oceans every year. But opening the load can be dangerous – every eighth container that arrives in Sweden has levels of chemical substances in the air that exceed the limit for the work environment, according to research from Karolinska Institutet.

Picture of a cargo ship from above.
Every eighth container can be dangerous to open if not pre-ventilated. Photo: Getty Images

Text: Ola Danielsson, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no 4/2020.

These are various chemicals which may have been used in manufacturing processes, used against pests or formed by the natural degradation of part of the load.  Several of these substances are classified as carcinogenic.

“The workers who unload the containers are usually completely unaware of the risks,” says Gunnar Johanson, professor of toxicology and risk assessment at the Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, one of the researchers who began to map the problem after a number of cases of poisoning.

Now he and his colleague Urban Svedberg, a researcher at the same department, have developed a way to purify the air before the container is opened. A suction plate is placed over the valve at one of the corners of the container and the gases are sucked out through a hose. After an hour of pre-venting, the harmful gases have decreased by 90 per cent, according to the researchers' field studies.

"This is our way of taking our research forward to a preventive measure that can make a difference to people’s health," Gunnar Johanson says.

The researchers are now selling their innovation through a company and among the customers are Swedish Customs and the National Food Administration.

Source: International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, September 2020