BUSINESS

8,000 Refrigerated Shipping Containers May Be In Danger Of Exploding

11/02/2011 05:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 02, 2012

Reefers are causing a worldwide panic, but not the kind most would expect.

Ports in western Washington state and Oakland, California are stepping up safety procedures after multiple reefers -- or refrigerated shipping cars -- exploded in Vietnam and Brazil, killing a total of three dockworkers, MSNBC reports. Faulty coolant likely caused the explosions; the bad coolant is in use in up to 8,000 container cars that have undergone maintenance in Vietnam since February.

Demand for those containers can often be a barometer of trade activity. A rebound in global trade earlier this year pushed shipping firms to rely increasingly on companies that lease the containers, Bloomberg reports. Steel cargo box demand may see an 11 percent boost this year.

Even with the estimated rise in demand for containers, some port workers in Oakland are refusing to work out of fear that more reefers will explode. Still, a representative from Maersk Line, the shipping company whose reefers blew up, says "necessary precautions [have been taken] to avoid further incidents," freight news outlet IFW reports.

However, Chris Peeler, a member of the Labor Relations Committee of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Seattle told MSNBC, that, so far, experts "cannot pinpoint the problem."

Though the reefers may be giving the shipping industry some trouble right now, since its advent in World War II, containerization has made the shipping process safer and more efficient. A 2001 report from the International Organization for Standardization, the governing body responsible for standardizing the containers, estimated that containerization has reduced the cost and time required to move goods globally by 35 and 84 percent, respectively.

The same report hailed containerization for its "enormous improvements in the safety and health of transportation workers" who'd previously played a much more hands-on and hazardous roles in the movement of goods. But, potential risks remain due to the high volume of goods that are often hidden inside the containers.

Last year Italy experienced the worst radiologic incident in its history when a container car arriving in the port city of Genoa was found to have startlingly high levels of radiation emitting from it, according to Wired. After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, officials determined that the source of the radiation was a "pencil-like cylinder" of radioactive cobalt-60, which was once part of a machine used to sterilize food and eventually made its way to a Saudi Arabian scrap metal yard, and then was inexplicably included in a shipment of more than 22-tons of copper wire.

The incident highlighted concerns over the potential use of reefers by terrorists, Wired reports, and currently the Department of Homeland Security says that 99 percent of incoming cargo is scanned for radiation.

Still, some shipping risks may simply come with the territory. Earlier this month at least 6 tankers carrying the flammable chemical ethanol exploded when a freight train derailed in Tiskilwa, Illinois. Likewise a cargo ship named Rena remains stranded after running aground on a reef in New Zealand on October 5th, leaking about 385 tons of oil into ocean to date.

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