The participants discussed the following aspects on the health risks posed by fumigated containers at an experts' workshop on 16 November 2018:
Proper fumigation and labeling
Common substances approved for fumigation, such as phosphine, usually evaporate within a short period of time. If used properly a risk to consumers is therefore unlikely according to current knowledge.
However, it also became clear at the workshop, that in many cases containers are not fumigated properly and/or that the containers in question are only poorly marked and labeled, if at all, so that it is not possible to handle them correctly. This conceals the risk of exposure to persons who load, unload or dispatch the containers.
Volatile organic solvents
Apart from the subject of approved biocides there is the issue of the frequent detection of volatile organic solvents. These substances originate from the cleaning of the containers as well as from the products themselves.
In particular the potentially carcinogenic 1,2-dichloroethane has been detected in many cases. In the air of some containers 1,2-dichloroethane concentrations in the ppm range were measured. This poses first and foremost a health risk to everyone who unloads the products from which the solvents degas.
1,2-dichloroethane is given off fumigated products slowly. It may degas over a period of up to two months, which means it is possible that consumers and/or retail personnel can also come in contact with 1,2-dichloroethane or other volatile solvents.
The analysis of volatile substances in containers is technically demanding. To determine how severely contaminated the air in a container is, the measurement has to be made before the container is ventilated.
From the perspective of health risk assessment, it is necessary to record also potentially health-damaging substances beyond the spectrum of fumigants authorized as biocides. This is not fully possible at the moment, however, due to a lack of measuring methods. For this reason, a continuous exchange of information between the workshop participants, especially with regard to the further development of methods for measuring volatile solvents, was considered useful. Providing protection against the health risks posed by goods transported in fumigated containers is a joint challenge faced by authorities responsible for market monitoring and consumer health protection.
Research project: Influence of fumigation on the aroma of sunflower seeds
Apart from the possible direct effect on humans, the research project also focused on effects on foods. The BfR and Julius Kühn Institute (JKI) demonstrated that fumigation with the bio-cide phosphine and the solvent 1,2-dichloroethane alters the aroma of sunflower seeds. Whether or not this influence on quality also exists with other agricultural products is subject of further examinations at the BfR.