Toxic Shipping Containers May Be Contaminating Your Food And Clothes

A container ship leaving Hamburg
A container ship leaving Hamburg
Sophie Landrin

ROTTERDAM - Governments are well aware of the danger, but consumers have no idea. One out of five freight containers arriving in European ports has been fumigated with extremely dangerous, carcinogenic or neurotoxic gases.

It is a vast phenomenon: one million containers filled with imported goods arrive in Europe by ship every week. These toxic substances are odorless, colorless and can affect everyone from port workers, customs officials, logisticians, drivers, warehousemen, store employees and even consumers.

In 2010 in the Netherlands, two workers unpacking a container from China filled with glass packed in timber pallets were severely contaminated. One of them spent five days in a coma while the other experienced serious health problems: major weight loss, loss of smell and taste.

These toxic gases are left over from the fumigation process, a necessary – sometimes mandatory – operation to kill micro-organisms and pests before transport, in order to prevent the introduction of parasites, bacteria and diseases into the importing country.

The fumigation process is usually subject to many precautions. Shipping containers must be sprayed with gas and then ventilated before goods can be loaded. They must display specific labels on the door specifying the date of fumigation and the fumigation gas used.

In March 2010, the EU banned the use of methyl bromide, a dangerous pesticide -- but many countries, including the U.S., still use it. What’s worse, very few countries actually indicate the presence of toxic gas on their containers, to avoid having to de-gas them.

Another more insidious source of toxicity, which puts port workers and consumers at risk, is the vapors emanating from the merchandise itself during transport. Furniture, shoes, clothes made in Asia – mostly Vietnam and China -- frequently contain toluene and benzene solvents, which are carcinogen. When this is the case, there are no labels on the shipping container warning port workers to equip themselves against toxic fumes. The only solution is to test the air inside the containers, an operation that is seldom carried out.

From medicine to mattresses

Can fumigation gases contaminate goods inside the containers? A 2005 study from the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and Environment revealed that imported medicine, food and mattresses contained methyl bromide.

Three years later, during the 18th Annual Congress of the European Respiratory Society, researchers from the Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine at Hamburg University revealed the huge risks associated with fumigated containers. Out of 200 containers arriving in Hamburg, Germany, and 300 arriving in Rotterdam, Netherlands, Xavier Baur and Lygia Budnik concluded that 97% of freight containers contained residues of pesticide fumigants and toxic industrial chemicals, mostly 1.2-dichloroethane and methyl bromide, as well as benzene and toluene. About 19% of them had levels exceeding the permitted exposure level. The German researchers told the congress that the fumigants and toxic products “contaminated the transported goods, penetrating into them and settling there.”

Belgium and the Netherlands have already implemented drastic measures. Every time there is a doubt, the containers are tested for toxic gas. Dutch customs require a certificate confirming the absence of toxic fumes time-stamped less than two hours before its staff is called in. Jan De Jong, leader of the Dutch trade union FNV Bondgenoten, has called on governments to go even further by banning certain toxic chemicals worldwide.

Trade unions have asked for de-gassing stations to be installed in ports and for inspections to be increased. What about companies? A 2006 study by the Dutch Environment Ministry showed that 97% of companies had never analyzed the risks linked to fumigation. Since then, some companies like IKEA have started systematically measuring the toxicity of their containers and their furniture.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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