Shipping container safety has been a topic of global discussion since their initial design and the beginnings of wide-spread usage. It’s important to understand how container safety laws came about, whether they are effective or not, and what the danger might be when using them for habitable construction. The International Standards Organization (ISO) regulates the structural capacity and life safety of containers. This post will largely focus on their impact in container safety over the years and how it relates to residential code standards.
The most well-known issue tackled by the ISO is the outlawing of lead and other toxic chemicals used in the painting of containers. The ISO outlawed lead and chromate usage in paint over four decades ago. Unfortunately, it took time to phase out older containers that were constructed before these standards and to create an inspection process that adequately ensured manufacturer compliance. The ISO ensures quality with routine inspections at production facilities and today they even require a sticker showing the paint’s company of origin and composition. Over the course of 40 years it has effectively eliminated this safety issue.
With the outlawing of heavy metals in paint the focus on toxicity turned largely to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). Containers have varying concerns for VOC’s and it is important to understand where these concerns come from.
VOC’s are a common issue within the construction industry. One example of this trouble unfortunately can be seen with Lumber Liquidators. Many of their flooring products from China contained levels of Formaldehyde over the legal limits. Shipping containers contain wooden flooring and as such have the potential to be treated with toxic chemicals. All of the harmful chemicals, such as Dieldrin, have been outlawed for over a decade. This is due to the usage of containers on a global standard. If it poses a harmful health risk to an inbound nation, many of those nations are rejecting potential health risks to dock workers and shipping personnel.
Every construction company is dealing with this issue whether they know it or not. Formaldehyde concentrations in a new home are often 2-3x that of existing homes. There are many chemicals that leak into the air short-term after construction that new home buyers should be aware of. Most cause no immediate issues, but it is always good practice to ventilate a new home.
Formaldehyde is a known container VOC, but not for the reason most people might expect. While the ISO has been able to successfully regulate container production, the global community has yet to fully regulate product packaging. Bulk suppliers need to package their product, largely in cardboard and other common products. However, their product standards are far lower than one might expect from US suppliers. During the often month long journeys from China to the US, VOC’s from goods being shipped are off-gassed into the container. This poses substantial risks to dock workers who often are attempting to unload cargo as quickly as possible before properly ventilating these inbound containers.
The shipping industry at large is realizing these off-gassing risks. Containers arriving at ports around the world contain high levels of VOC’s which leads to dangerous air-quality. However, simply ventilating the containers substantially reduces the long-term toxicity of these containers. Simply put, open the doors of the containers and let it air out before working inside. This is good news for used containers as they are largely “aired out” after such a long life cycle.
Containers also have unique container specific risks. From time to time there is the possibility of spillage of potentially toxic materials within containers we utilize. As such, it is often impossible to tell with absolute certainty that a used container is without contamination.
We take serious precautions when utilizing containers. We begin by power washing each container to clean any potential residue from the inside. Following ISO repaint standards, we scrape all rusted sections of containers clean and apply 1-3 coats of paint to every exposed metal wall. This will seal the containers. The remaining walls are drywalled and framed following a typical construction standard. Finally, we epoxy the floors of the containers creating an air-tight seal keeping any potential contaminates from escaping.
Our goal with this post is to show customers that we are aware of the risk and have actively created a process to clean, seal, and inspect this work. This process will ensure the safety of residents who live inside.