1997 - -

Year 1997
Vessel -
Location USA
Cargo type Package
Chemicals ALUMINIUM PHOSPHIDE

Summary

On January 14, 1997, an intermodal shipping container of wicker furniture from Hong Kong was offloaded to a truck and transported to a U.S. Customs bonded warehouse for inspection. The furniture was manually removed and later repacked into the shipping container. While unpacking the container, a warehouse worker noticed what looked to be a crushed yoghurt cup containing white powder and some spilled white powder on the floor of the container. Thinking this was rubbish, he kicked the cup off the loading dock to the ground. After two days at the Customs warehouse, the container was then driven back to the Port Authority container pier. At a check station, the truck driver and Port Authority clerk noticed a small deposit of a white powder along the rear trailer chassis of the truck at the base of the container. As the driver attempted to unfasten a pin connecting the container to the chassis, a flash occurred in the vicinity of the white powder. According to the clerk, the material burned for 2 - 3 minutes, releasing 2.5cm flames prior to burning itself out. He reported this incident to his supervisor, who subsequently notified the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office. The container was taken to an isolated area of the pier while emergency responders developed an action plan.

The MSO called the Customs warehouse to determine if they had noticed any white powder while stripping the container. The warehouse worker retrieved the yoghurt cup from outside and brought it to his supervisor's office. The worker then claimed to have been overcome by "fumes" emitted from the cup. He experienced dizziness, chest tightness, and nausea. He threw the yoghurt cup into a plastic bag which he then loosely closed. The worker got some fresh air, washed up and soon felt better. When he returned downstairs he heard an explosion in the warehouse. He saw a metre or so high flame in the vicinity of the plastic bag which was followed by a big puff of smoke. He ran upstairs to notify others in the building, vented the area by opening doors and windows and then notified the local fire department. The warehouse worker was treated and released at a local hospital. He continued to feel sick and was unable to work for five days following the exposure.

Narrative

On January 14, 1997, an intermodal shipping container of wicker furniture from Hong Kong was offloaded to a truck and transported to a U.S. Customs bonded warehouse for inspection. The furniture was manually removed and later repacked into the shipping container. While unpacking the container, a warehouse worker noticed what looked to be a crushed yoghurt cup containing white powder and some spilled white powder on the floor of the container. Thinking this was rubbish, he kicked the cup off the loading dock to the ground. After two days at the Customs warehouse, the container was then driven back to the Port Authority container pier. At a check station, the truck driver and Port Authority clerk noticed a small deposit of a white powder along the rear trailer chassis of the truck at the base of the container. As the driver attempted to unfasten a pin connecting the container to the chassis, a flash occurred in the vicinity of the white powder. According to the clerk, the material burned for 2 - 3 minutes, releasing 2.5cm flames prior to burning itself out. He reported this incident to his supervisor, who subsequently notified the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office. The container was taken to an isolated area of the pier while emergency responders developed an action plan.

The MSO called the Customs warehouse to determine if they had noticed any white powder while stripping the container. The warehouse worker retrieved the yoghurt cup from outside and brought it to his supervisor's office. The worker then claimed to have been overcome by "fumes" emitted from the cup. He experienced dizziness, chest tightness, and nausea. He threw the yoghurt cup into a plastic bag which he then loosely closed. The worker got some fresh air, washed up and soon felt better. When he returned downstairs he heard an explosion in the warehouse. He saw a metre or so high flame in the vicinity of the plastic bag which was followed by a big puff of smoke. He ran upstairs to notify others in the building, vented the area by opening doors and windows and then notified the local fire department. The warehouse worker was treated and released at a local hospital. He continued to feel sick and was unable to work for five days following the exposure.

Resume

At the container pier, hazardous materials teams were assembled from the fire department, the state police and the Coast Guard. The shipping agent informed emergency responders that the cargo had been treated with aluminium phosphide, a fumigant chemical.

Aluminium phosphide is a toxic biocide used in fumigation for the control of insects and rodent pests. It reacts with water or atmospheric moisture to emit phosphine (PH3) according to the reaction: AlP + 3H20 -----> Al(OH)3 + PH3. Phosphine is a colourless gas with a garlic-like odour. It has a TLV-TWA of 0.3ppm, a TLV-STEL of 1.0ppm and an IDLH of 200ppm. It is spontaneously flammable and is often contaminated by small amounts of diphosphane that is likely to auto-ignite in air (auto-ignition temperature reported for phosphine is 38ºC) and cause an explosion even at ambient temperature in an enclosed or confined space. Aluminium phosphide has a low aquatic toxicity due to its reaction with water to form phosphine which will eventually form phosphoric acid. No evidence exists to support bioaccumulation.
When transported as a cargo, aluminium phosphide belongs to the IMDG Code Class 4.3 and must be labelled as "dangerous when wet". Yet it should also be noted that aluminium phosphide pesticides are Class 6.1 and must be labelled as "toxic", yet most pesticides formulations contain at least 50% AlP and the hazard of a water reactive cargo still remains.

When used as a fumigant, the recommended AlP dosage varies according to the characteristics of the space and the type of cargo being treated, ranging from 100 - 900 pellets per 28 cubic metres of space. The recommended dosage for a typical 40 foot container would be 720-0.6 gram pellets, or 432 grams. If applied correctly, all of the AlP reacts with atmospheric moisture after 3 - 8 days after application, leaving behind a relatively harmless residue of aluminium hydroxide and other inert ingredients. If too much AlP is used to fumigate a space or atmospheric conditions are unusually cool and dry, it is possible to have chemically active AlP remaining at the end of the voyage. Aluminium phosphide should be used on longer voyages since this gives a slower release of phosphine. Conversely, shorter voyages should employ magnesium phosphide which releases phosphine at a faster rate.

The Port Authority hired a hazardous materials contractor to assist with the response. The state police attempted to open the door of the container with their remote-controlled robot, however it was not able to unfasten the door pins. Later, a fire department HAZMAT team wearing "level A" personal protective equipment opened the container door. They retreated to a safe area while the state police robot sampled the container for an explosive environment and phosphine gas. No airborne hazards were identified. At that point, most emergency responders, including the Coast Guard, were secured from the scene. The container was turned over to the hazardous materials contractor who cleaned up and disposed of the remaining aluminium phosphide in the container.

The greatest factor contributing to the container incident was the failure to properly placard the container. Nobody at either the Port Authority pier or the Customs warehouse was aware that this container had been fumigated. The warehouse worker who was sent to the hospital stated afterwards that he would have handled the container differently had he known it was fumigated. He definitely would have ventilated the container by opening the doors for several hours prior to unloading.

These actions would most likely have prevented his overexposure to phosphine gas and the explosion in the Customs warehouse.

After discussing the incident with the manufacturer of the chemical and reviewing their applicator's manual, it appears that the pesticide may not have been applied properly.

Because the product was placed in a cup, only the top surface may have reacted with atmospheric moisture. This can result in decreased efficacy due to poor gas release and may leave an active residual which contains considerable amounts of unreacted AlP.

Also, the shipper may have applied too much AlP for this size container. Either of these errors may be responsible for the overexposure and explosion at the warehouse. The use of special packaging consisting of AlP powder in Tyvek bags greatly reduces worker exposures associated with the product. The bag prevents ruptures and leakage, which eliminates direct contact with the product. The bags are penetrable to water vapour, but are impenetrable to liquid water which significantly reduces the fire and explosion hazard. This form of packaging is highly desirable for fumigation of shipping containers. In cargo holds containing bulk perishable cargoes such as grain, sachets of fumigation strips containing the fumigant should be placed at varying depths in the cargo using a probe rather than merely being placed onto the cargo.

last modified 2021-08-18T14:47:28+00:00