Ship fumigation

by Emily Wilson
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In-transit fumigation of ships cargoes have been used throughout the world for many years as a means of disinfesting cargoes economically. To be effective, insects need to be exposed to fumigant for a minimum period of days, and using the time that the cargo is in the hold while in transit from load port to discharge port is very economical.

The most widely used fumigant is phosphine gas, and this requires between four and 14 days (depending on method of fumigation, temperature of cargo and insect species) to be fully effective. Therefore, it can be seen that using the in-transit time can be very cost effective. In addition, the exporter can be confident that, on arrival, the goods will be free from live infestation.


However, the procedure for safe and efficient in-transit grain fumigation requires the vessel to be held in port after loading for a period of time. It also requires the cargo to be ventilated and checked to ensure it is safe before the cargo is discharged. In both these areas, the fumigator and the ship’s Master may have different requirements from the elevator at the load port or from the elevator at the discharge port.

The elevator at the load port has the objective of loading the vessel as quickly as possible and moving the vessel off the berth so that it is available for subsequent vessels. The fumigator wants time to check the empty vessel prior to loading commencing, to test for gas tightness and sometimes to fit fumigation pipes to the holds. This can mean delays to starting the loading operation.

Subsequently, the actual application of fumigant cannot start until after the vessel has completed loading; this normally means the vessel cannot sail for a period of a few hours. On some occasions, this delay may be for 24 hours or more, especially where pre-loading checks have not been carried out for some reason. How can the requirements of the fumigator, ship’s master and elevator at the load port be reconciled?


In European ports, the problems have been largely overcome by education of the elevator facilities regarding the health and safety risks to the crew that will result from fumigation that is carried out too quickly and with insufficient checks. With good cooperation and pre-planning, the delays can be minimized.

For example, the pre-fumigation checks may be carried out in the very early morning prior to commencement of loading, or sometimes at sea as the vessel is approaching the berth, to reduce the delay time. The fumigator will then work with the ship’s Master during the loading period and in cooperation with the elevator to ensure that everything is prepared for the fumigant application on completion of loading. This means the vessel will only be held in port for the minimum time. If necessary, the vessel will be moved to a lay-by berth for the fumigation to be completed; however, this procedure can lead to extra charges, which can lead to disputes about who should cover the cost of the movement to a lay-by berth.

The key is good information and good cooperation between all three parties. The loading port elevators have to recognize that the fumigator must have time to do a thoroughly safe and professional job. The fumigator must recognize that he has a duty to explain everything to not only the ship’s Master but also to the elevator’s management team.

All parties have a duty under the U.N. International Maritime Organization recommendations to ensure the fumigation is carried out safely. Fumigators who are members of the International Maritime Fumigation Organization all work strictly to these recommendations.

Prior to arrival at the discharge port, the ship’s Master has a duty to inform the port that the cargo has been fumigated. Even if the ventilation has been started at sea, the cargo must be checked prior to discharge to ensure that no toxic levels of fumigant remain. This procedure will often be organized by the fumigation company who has carried out the fumigation at the load port. If shippers refuse to authorize and pay for the inspection, it can lead to safety problems and delays at the discharge port. Where necessary, elevators should insist on this procedure being carried out thoroughly and correctly to protect themselves and their employees. To ensure this, the fumigator at the load port must provide detailed information to the ship’s Master, who will then be able to inform and prepare the fumigator and elevators at the discharge ports.