Copyright: SvedOliver

Hazardous chemicals crossing borders

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

Anyone who has stood in line to have their bags, boots and body checked before getting on an aeroplane will know that international borders are well protected. After all, that young mother with her squealing baby could so easily be carrying more than the requisite quantity of fluid in a plastic bottle in her hand luggage. The old gentleman with the walking frame? Who’s to say he hasn’t packed it with old-school sticks of dynamite ready to hijack an autumnal tourist flight packed with mini-breakers. That surly teenager’s personal music player with its incessant “tss, tss, tss” and fragile glass touch screen? It could so easily be converted into a lethal weapon with a sharp blow to the arm of the aircraft seat releasing a shard of sharp glass with which to threaten the crew while they point to the exits and mime putting on an oxygen mask in case of the aircraft losing cabin pressure…

Yes, our borders are safe. We need not worry about fluids, forks or wayward iPods.

But, it is not necessarily the wannabe teenage terrorists we should worry about. There is a subtle threat to public health that is essentially ignored by the authorities, or so it seems. According to Bruce Percy of SampleRite, “Small quantities of hazardous chemical samples are regularly being packaged and transported from the Far East as ‘non-hazardous substances’ in order to save on the additional costs and paperwork required to comply with IATA regulations.” The IATA, or International Air Transport Association, purportedly regulates what can and cannot be transported by air and how potentially hazardous substances should be packaged and labelled. Similarly, the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code is being flouted.” It seems that this practice of ‘misdeclaration’ is becoming more and more prevalent as chemical manufacturing shifts from its traditional bases in Europe and the US to the Far East and China in particular,” adds Percy.

The consequences of such ‘misdeclaration’ could be fatal. Airline staff, customs officers, airport security, or staff at the premises of the intended recipient, opening a package that they believe contains non-hazardous chemicals is at risk from being exposed to toxic liquids, powders or fumes because they are unlikely to have taken adequate precautions. Based on the documentation received the contents of a package would be presumed non-hazardous; they certainly aren’t expecting such packages to contain flammable or toxic materials deliberately labelled as non-hazardous to circumvent the regulations.

Turning a blind eye

SampleRite, a UK-based sample management company believes this issue is on the increase and hopes to raise awareness of the dangers and the threat to workplace safety. Moreover, the company believes the chemical industry is all but turning a blind eye to a problem that many people know exists. Many of the world’s major chemical companies source from China, have operations in the region or outsource production to Chinese manufacturers so that they can compete in an increasingly price sensitive and commoditized market. The result is that more and more chemical samples are now being sent overseas in order to drive sales, the vast majority presumably comply with the regulations, but too many are being sent illegally in which fraudulent certification is used to label hazardous samples labelled as safe.

“We get situations fairly frequently where the outside of the box indicates one thing but inside the box we find the product labelling is different. Sometimes there may be another safety data sheet inside. If a delivery has not been marked up properly we get straight on the phone to our client to let them know what is going on. Our clients are usually taken aback by the revelations,” Bruce explains. “In these situations we quarantine the material.” Of course, correct packaging and labelling and full compliance with the rules takes time and costs money. The difference between legal and illegal transport of materials from China to mainland Europe can be 300%.

“If a European chemical company has outsourced their manufacturing to China they need to make sure samples dispatched in their name are sent legally,” Bruce adds. The consequences for a company caught falsifying documentation in terms of fines and reputation are immense if there is an accident.

Imants Zudans CEO of Molport, a chemical compound procurement platform, “We routinely see this,” he told us. “Molport regularly has to issue new, correct documentation when shipping out from its repackaging facilities to the end user. Zudans suggests that heavy-handed regulations that are too strict and illogical have had the opposite effect to that intended in terms of improving safety. “Customs procedures, for example, are the same if you import a tonne of one chemical or 10,000 samples of a novel compounds of just 5 milligrams each for screening,” he adds.

Each compound requires customs documentation with individual customs codes. But, Zudans explains, “There is no way to do a structure search in the customs code database, let alone a batch search. This is insane for 5 mg samples! If Markush structures can be used in patents, why not use the same principle for customs codes and controlled substance legislation?”

Featured image credit: SvedOliver via Shutterstock

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David Bradley

David is a freelance science writer with more than thirty years in science communication. His best-selling book, Deceived Wisdom is available now.
David Bradley

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