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This article was placed in the Algemeen Dagblad (NL) and is translated from Dutch. You can find the original article over here.

Toxic gases in boxes from China: ‘Leave your order for another day…’

Dutch consumers and port employees are unnecessarily exposed to toxic gases due to Chinese and Asian products that are loaded into a container too quickly after producing them. Gas measurement companies in the port of Rotterdam are warning for this. Products are concerning, among others, shoes, electronics, white goods and various plastic trinkets.

Of every ten containers that reach the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, at least one contains too high concentrations of toxic gases, according to Gasmeetstation and EWS Group, the biggest companies in gas measurement and ventilation of ship loads. Yearly, hundreds of thousands of ‘wrong’ containers are concerned: in the first half of this year, 7,5 million containers arrived in the port of Rotterdam alone.

Reason for the warning is the drama concerning the inland navigation couple De Waardt, that landed on the intensive care of the UMC, because of a load treated with Phosphine (rat poison).

According to reputable gas measurement companies, it goes wrong more often. On one hand, there are containers with, for example, grain, corn and rice that are consciously treated with gas in order to kill pests. The biggest category, however are products that vaporize toxic gases themselves. „Those are the real silent killers”, says Joren Nieuwenhuizen, director/owner of EWS Group and Chairman of Stichting Kennis en Advies Gasmeting en Ontgassing (KAGO). Shoes, but also white goods, electronics and all kinds of trinkets of plastic, pvc, wood and synthetics like Christmas houses and packaging materials.

Half of shoes gets rejected

At Gasmeetstation, employees measure too many dangerous gases in 12 percent of the containers. In the fifth percent of the cases, it concerns gases against pests, like Phosphine. The biggest part (80 percent) concerns toxic vapours from goods that were produced too fast.

Competitor EWS Group – which is also active in Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain – finds dangerous concentrations of gases in 11 percent of the hundreds of thousands of containers they check every year. However, that is the average „We reject almost half of the loads with shoes”, tells Director Nieuwenhuizen. „Shoes are coming from Asia, where they are glued together with cheap products like formalin and toluene.” Shoes are transported before the glue has dried, during transport they also encounter the warm tropics. „This leads to a big gas bubble, that often exists of a mixture of different gases.”

Those shoes end up in warehouses and eventually in shoe stores. „That nice scent of new shoes, actually is the evaporation of volatile organic substances with potentially dangerous health effects”, Nieuwenhuizen says. His own children preferably only get shoes that where produced in Europe.

Mandatory ventilation phase

Health damage is revealed at the long term, Leo Roderkerk of Gasmeetstation complements. „Toxic, carcinogenic substances build up in the body. Nobody knows how many people eventually get sick. And if you get sick, try to prove that it’s because of the toxic container gases.”

Chemist Dr. Atie Verschoor, expert in container gases, pleads for a mandatory ventilation phase between production and transport. „Buyers in The Netherlands should oblige Chinese producers to do so. But the extra cent that those products will cost, apparently is too much.”

Verschoor, who has been director for years of the expertise centre in container gases ECEmed that was connected to the Rijstate hospital in Arnhem, states that Dutch consumers should be informed much better about the dangers of imported goods. „Don’t take a new pc or tv out of the box in the living room immediately. Put them somewhere they can ventilate for 24 hours first.”

According to all experts, the attention for toxic containers has weakened in the last years and they are inspected not often enough. A decade back, it has been different for a while, also due to reports of Zembla and Argos. Platform Gassen in Containers (PGIC), as well as a special contact point were formed. In the House of Representatives, Remi Poppe (SP) and Jan Boelhouwer (PvdA) advocated for a special inspection team.

More attention for safe production

According to the Inspectie Leefomgeving & Transport (IL&T), the situation has improved structurally. „Now, there are many more ventilation units and more awareness that containers can be dangerous,” a spokesperson states.

Director Nieuwenhuizen of EWS Group would like to see more attention for safe production. „In Europe, we banned many detrimental chemicals, and now these chemicals enter our country through Asia because we love to buy cheap stuff.”

Nieuwenhuizen repeatedly invited the government to share his expertise. „We have been building a database with more than one million containers since 2010. Not even 2 percent of the total amount of containers that enter The Netherlands are checked nowadays.”

Response Customs: 16.625 containers were checked in 2018

In a response, customs let us know that every container that is inspected, also must be opened and checked for the presence of dangerous gases. The Douane Rotterdam Haven (DRH) says that 16.625 containers were checked last year „in different processes”. Of these, 77 were reported to the Inspection SZW, because they contained too high concentrations of gases or vapours. This year, it is expected that the total of physically inspected containers will be a little higher, according to DRH. Up until last week, 90 incoming and 15 outgoing containers were reported to the Inspection SZW, because they contained gases or vapours that exceeded the statutory limits.