The time has come to clean up indoor air pollution on ships

Many people think that merchant mariners spend almost all of their time outside in the fresh sea air while on board a vessel. The reality is that we spend most of our time inside. We are sleeping and relaxing in our staterooms, doing laundry or having a meal, then working inside the wheelhouse, galley or engine room for 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks or months at a time. Every merchant mariner who has been to sea has breathed a lot of “indoor air.” Studies conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that indoor air pollution may be two to five times — even as much as 100 times — worse than outdoor pollution. Indeed, I recall certain ships and boats I sailed on where the air inside the house was so bad I thought that my health was being affected.

Within a few hours of joining a ship in Seattle, I had a runny nose and itchy watering eyes. My first watch in the wheelhouse, I noticed a pile of whitish gray dust accumulating under one of the ventilation system vents, and the vent itself was covered with ugly gray “fuzz.” In my stateroom the vent was gummed up with a gross layer of what looked like lint and grime that had probably been accumulating for years, with a ratty towel filled with dust loosely taped over it to catch anything that blew in. I took the towel down and dust flew everywhere. After washing the vent cover with detergent, I duct-taped a clean towel to it. This precipitated a sneezing/coughing session that lasted hours, and triggered a wheezing in my lungs that continued for a couple of days. Suffering through the work tour with an almost constant sore throat, runny eyes and nose, and dull headache, it seemed that within hours of leaving the ship, I could already feel my sinuses begin to clear. After a few days of coughing up grayish phlegm my lungs finally felt healthy — and I vowed to never work on that ship again.

A 1989 EPA report estimated that poor indoor air quality costs around $60 billion a year in lost productivity and an additional $6 billion in health expenses. A 2004 study out of the United Kingdom pointed out that the indoor air quality in a workplace could have a marked effect on the health of employees. In 2009 the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office publicly stated that ”poor indoor air quality can contribute to symptoms ranging from eye, nose and throat irritation to chronic conditions.” As in my case, mild symptoms of indoor air pollution include sinus problems, headaches and coughing spells. In chronic cases, bad indoor air quality can be a significant factor in causing debilitating conditions such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, asthma and even Legionnaires’ disease.

Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially deadly condition that can be transmitted by inhaling microscopic water droplets containing the Legionella bacteria, and according to U.S. government scientists, is linked to poor indoor air quality. Hundreds of documented cases of Legionnaires’ disease have occurred on passenger ships. Cargo ships are not immune either. A study out of Russia pointed out that nearly 30 percent of the mariners working on six cargo vessels studied had been exposed to the bacteria. The study found evidence of water-supply and ventilation-system contamination from the Legionella bacteria.

On a recent Sunday phone call, our niece, who is an expert in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for commercial buildings, told us about “Sick Building Syndrome” and “Building-Related Illness” — two terms officially used to describe health problems that are caused by poor indoor air quality. According to a World Health Organization report, up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be linked to “Sick Building Syndrome.” Energy efficiency requirements established in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in buildings that were more airtight to save on fuel bills. The downside was that the buildings became hotter, more humid and less ventilated. Over time, indoor air pollution from many different sources, including dirty ventilation systems, mold, volatile organic chemicals, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, build up and cause problems for people living and working in these “sick structures.”

According to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system vents and ducts are a major source of indoor air pollution. I have never been on any ship or boat that has had its ventilation ducts cleaned by professionals, despite the fact that HVAC systems on commercial vessels operate constantly in the wet, humid environment at sea. Although there are International Maritime Organization construction standards for HVAC systems on board commercial vessels, they deal largely with fire control and the amount of air pushed through. In my opinion, significantly more access for cleaning and maintenance of shipboard ventilation ducts should be required, with construction of new ship HVAC systems done in accordance with applicable green building guidelines that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has developed to improve indoor air quality.

I would also like to see periodic inspection and full cleaning/sanitizing of ventilation systems on board commercial vessels be mandated as part of companies’ International Safety Management Code procedures. Logging of indoor humidity and temperature readings should be part of the vessel’s regular routine, along with conducting air quality tests for mold. Shore-side purchasing agents, trained to know how carpets, room furnishings, paint and cleaning agents used aboard ship can emit toxic fumes, need to be instructed to order these items with an eye toward minimizing indoor air pollution for the crews at sea.

People’s jobs shouldn’t make them sick or diseased. When that happens, employees and companies both lose. Yet, it has been estimated that 35 million to 60 million Americans have symptoms related to poor indoor air quality at the place where they work. By making appropriate regulatory changes to reduce indoor air pollution on commercial vessels, the maritime industry has a chance to be an example of the solution — and not part of the problem.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff