You might not smell trouble but you might see it coming, even if it wears a mask
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We’ll call him Danek, not his real name but he was a real person, a Polish able seaman and one of nine crew aboard the 30 years old 81 metre general cargo ship Monika, flagged in Antigua Barbuda. Danek’s cabin is in the forward part of the accommodation which overhangs the aft bulkhead of one of Monika’s two holds by about half a metre. Next to his cabin is the ship’s hospital.
It’s 25th October and Monika is in Kaliningrad, Russia. She has taken a little more than two and a half thousand cubic metres of feed wheat into her holds bound for Montrose, Scotland. To make sure no pests survive the passage to Montrose the Russian Fumigation Group is tasked with fumigating the holds using pellets of Aluminium Phosphide. These pellets will break down during the journey and release highly toxic phosphine gas, leaving behind a residue of aluminium hydroxide.
The fumigator-in-charge comes aboard Monika as she loads, makes some checks and leaves 10 minutes later.
After loading is complete, the fumigator in charge returns with aluminium phosphide tablets which he pushes into the loaded wheat with a probe. Finished, he briefs the chief officer about the dangers of phosphine gas and tells him and his crew to be alert for its distinctive garlicky smell. Then he hands-over two gas masks, a gas detector pump and five detection tubes.
By fitting a tube to the pump and giving a squeeze or two crystals in the tube will change colour to indicate whether or not phosphine gas is present and how must. It’s a simple instrument.
With paperwork complete, the fumigator in charge leaves the ship and its hatches are closed.
Over the next four days Monika travels down the Baltic to the Kiel Canal and out into the North Sea. The voyage has been uneventful until now. As Monika heads across the North Sea the weather deteriorates with wind building to force 7 to 8 on her port bow. Several crew are seasick.
The hatches are sealed with expanding foam to protect the cargo.
Danek secures equipment on deck then goes to the mess for lunch. He doesn’t even get halfway through his lunch, he leaves most of it on the plate. He tells the cook to keep it for later and leaves the mess.
It is the last time he’s seen alive.
That day, another seafarer with a cabin on the same deck as Danek’s smells something unpleasant in the corridor outside his cabin. He sees vomit in the laundry sink and draws the obvious conclusion about where the smell is coming from and ignores it.
At 0800 the next morning Danek is found on the floor of his cabin next to his daybed. He was dead and had been dead for some time. The cabin is sealed until Monika reaches Montrose.
Tests in Montrose shows dangerous levels of phosphine gas in Danek’s cabin and the ship’s hospital. Where did it come from?
The most obvious source was the fumigated cargo hold, but it was sealed with expanding foam. And there were no pipes to lead the gas to the accommodation. Smoke was put into the hold to see where it entered the accommodation. It didn’t. Bulkhead linings were stripped out and, still, no smoke came from the cargo hold into the accommodation.
Corrosion was spotted beneath the cabin deck where it overhung the cargo hold. When this was descaled, tiny pinprick holes appeared. It was through these tiny holes that the gas had made its way into Danek’s cabin.
Yet the smoke test had failed. Why? Probably because during the rough weather the pounding of the ship increased pressure in the sealed cargo hold and, literally, pumped the gas into Danek’s cabin.
Phosphine gas probably disguised itself as seasickness in two different ways. First, although when pure it has no smell it usually has contaminants that produce an odour variously described as ‘garlicky’ or ‘like rotting fish’. That is almost what the seafarer in the accommodation smelled but assumed it came from the vomit in the laundry sink.
When Danek was poisoned he would have felt sick, disorientated, weak and dizzy. Precisely the same symptoms he was already feeling. He would have assumed that the effects were due to seasickness so he didn’t report it.
He may have had a headache, shortness of breath, a cough and a sore throat. Over some hours he would have experienced a build-up of fluid in the lungs, pulmonary oedema. He would probably have been conscious until shortly before his death.
It’s important to remember that while a characteristic or unusual smell can be a warning sign that something is wrong it is too easy for these to be masked by something else. In the case of phosphine gas, the level at which it can be detected by smell is close to its toxic level.
That is why it is vitally important to carry out regular tests, especially in accommodation areas and confined spaces, using the right equipment. It wasn’t done aboard Monika. Make sure that it’s done on your ship.
If fumigation is used on your ship, make sure you have a copy of the IMO’s Recommendations on the Safe Use of Pesticides on Ships onboard.
Oh, and do make sure you read it.
Look for places on your ship where trouble might lurk. The design of the Monika meant that phosphine gas could escape from the hold through tiny holes into the accommodation and kill. Could it happen on your ship? Talk it over with your crewmates.
You can’t always smell trouble but you might see it coming.
Alumium Phosphide tablets are easily available in many developing countries and one very sadly use for them is suicide. That’s why in Nicaragua they’re known as pastilla de amour, tablets of love.
This is Bob Couttie wishing you safe sailing.