Toxic Chemical Exposure in the Maritime Industry

by | Apr 12, 2023 | Maritime Accident, Maritime Injury, Workplace Safety

Maritime workers face hazardous conditions on an almost-daily basis. One of the primary hazards is toxic chemical exposure. Chemicals are used throughout the maritime industry for various purposes. Lax training, safety precautions, and protective gear when working with chemicals can result in serious injuries and illnesses.

At Kherkher Garcia, LLP, we want maritime workers and their families to be aware of the hazards of the industry and their rights if they suffer an injury or illness. Our offshore maritime injury lawyers have compiled the below guide to help maritime workers find the help they need if toxic chemical exposure occurs.

Exposure to Toxic Chemicals in the Maritime Industry

The maritime industry uses a variety of chemicals for different purposes, such as cleaning, maintenance, fuel treatment, and cargo operations. Chemicals common in the maritime industry include:

    • Cleaning Chemicals: These include detergents, solvents, and degreasers used for cleaning the ship’s decks, cargo holds, engine rooms, and other surfaces.
    • Paints and Coatings: These chemicals protect the ship’s hull and other metal surfaces from corrosion and fouling. Anti-fouling paints are also used to prevent the growth of marine organisms, such as barnacles, on the hull.
    • Fuel Additives: These additives improve the quality and performance of the ship’s fuel, such as reducing emissions and improving combustion efficiency.
    • Refrigerants: These are used in refrigeration systems on board ships to keep cargo and food products at a safe temperature.
    • Water Treatment Chemicals: These chemicals treat seawater and make it suitable for use in the ship’s boilers and cooling systems.
    • Cargo Handling Chemicals: These include chemicals that treat and protect various types of cargo, such as pesticides and chemicals to treat and preserve timber.

Toxic Chemicals in the Maritime Industry

Considering the list above, there is no doubt that there are many toxic chemicals in the maritime industry. Toxic chemical exposure can occur in almost any occupation, though some jobs are more likely to result in exposure than others. Ship breakers, for example, are more likely to be exposed to asbestos than deckhands. Still, it is important that anyone working in the maritime industry be aware of the risks and how to prevent injury or illness.

Some of the toxic chemicals most often reported in maritime injury claims include:


Benzene is a toxic chemical that is widely used in various industries, including the maritime industry. Exposure to benzene can cause illness including:

    • Cancer: Benzene is a known carcinogen and exposure to high levels of benzene can increase the risk of developing leukemia and other types of cancer.
    • Blood Disorders: Benzene exposure can also affect the bone marrow, leading to a decrease in the production of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, which can cause anemia, infections, and bleeding disorders.
    • Neurological Effects: Exposure to benzene can affect the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and tremors.
    • Reproductive Effects: Benzene exposure can affect reproductive health leading to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects.
    • Skin Irritation: Benzene can cause skin irritation and rashes when it comes into contact with the skin.
    • Respiratory Effects: Inhalation of benzene vapors can irritate the respiratory tract, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a toxic gas that is commonly found in industries such as oil and gas, mining, and pulp and paper. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide can be harmful to human health in several ways, including:

    • Respiratory Effects: Inhalation of high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause respiratory distress, leading to symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
    • Central Nervous System Effects: Hydrogen sulfide can affect the central nervous system (CNS), leading to symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea, and loss of consciousness. In severe cases, exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide can lead to coma or death.
    • Eye and Skin Irritation: Contact with hydrogen sulfide can cause eye and skin irritation, leading to symptoms such as redness, itching, and burning sensations.
    • Cardiac Effects: Exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause changes in heart rate and rhythm, leading to cardiovascular problems such as palpitations and arrhythmias.
    • Digestive Effects: Ingestion of hydrogen sulfide can cause digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
    • Reproductive Effects: Exposure to hydrogen sulfide can affect reproductive health leading to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects.


Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was widely used in construction materials and other industrial applications until the 1980s. Exposure to asbestos can cause serious illnesses including:

    • Lung Diseases: Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause lung diseases such as asbestosis, silicosis, and mesothelioma. These diseases may take years or decades to develop. The risk increases with the level and duration of exposure.
    • Cancer: Exposure to asbestos can also increase the risk of developing cancers of the lungs, larynx, stomach, colon, and rectum.
    • Respiratory Problems: Asbestos fibers can irritate the respiratory tract, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
    • Pleural Effusion: In some cases, exposure to asbestos can cause the buildup of fluid around the lungs, or pleural effusion.
    • Cardiac Effects: Exposure to asbestos can cause changes in heart function, leading to problems such as chest pain and heart failure.


Lead paint has been commonly used in industrial applications for decades. The metal itself serves as a pigment to color many paints, particularly orange and red tones. It is also an additive in many industrial paints because it accelerates drying time. In the maritime industry, lead paint is still present on many working vessels, and certainly those in ship breaking yards. This paint is durable and resists moisture – two important functions in maritime environments.

While lead paint has been banned, there are still many vessels and components in the maritime industry that workers may come in contact with. Exposure to lead can be detrimental to health in the following ways:

    • Neurological Effects: Lead can damage the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as headache, irritability, fatigue, and memory loss.
    • Cardiovascular Effects: Exposure to lead can also affect the cardiovascular system, leading to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
    • Renal Effects: Lead can damage the kidneys, leading to chronic kidney disease and kidney failure.
    • Reproductive Effects: Exposure to lead can affect reproductive health, leading to infertility, miscarriages, and birth defects.
    • Anemia: Lead exposure can interfere with the production of red blood cells, leading to anemia.
    • Gastrointestinal Effects: Ingestion of lead can cause gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.

The severity of the health effects depends on the level and duration of exposure to any of these chemicals. It is important to follow safety guidelines and regulations when working with or around toxic chemicals and to seek medical attention if you suspect exposure.

How do Toxic Chemicals Affect the Body?

Toxic chemicals can affect the body in a variety of ways, depending on the specific chemical, the dose, and the duration of exposure. Here are some of the general ways that toxic chemicals can affect the body:

    • Irritation: Some chemicals can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat, leading to symptoms such as itching, redness, and burning sensations.
    • Allergic Reactions: Exposure to certain chemicals can trigger allergic reactions in some people, causing symptoms such as hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing.
    • Systemic Toxicity: When toxic chemicals enter the bloodstream, they can affect multiple organs and systems in the body, leading to symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. In severe cases, systemic toxicity can cause organ damage or failure.
    • Cancer: Some chemicals are known to be carcinogenic, meaning they can cause cancer. Long-term exposure to these chemicals can increase the risk of developing cancer over time.
    • Reproductive Toxicity: Certain chemicals can affect the reproductive system, leading to infertility, birth defects, or other reproductive disorders.
    • Neurotoxicity: Some chemicals can affect the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as confusion, memory loss, and seizures.

It’s important to note that the effects of toxic chemicals can vary depending on factors such as age, gender, and pre-existing health conditions. It’s also important to take steps to minimize exposure to toxic chemicals and to follow safety guidelines when working with or around these substances.

How Long do Toxic Chemicals Stay in the Body?

The time it takes for a toxic chemical to leave the body depends on a number of factors, including the type of chemical, the amount of exposure, and the individual’s health. Some chemicals, such as alcohol and caffeine, are quickly eliminated from the body. Others, such as lead and mercury, can take years or even decades to leave the body.

The half-life of a chemical is the time it takes for half of the amount of the chemical in the body to be eliminated. For example, if a chemical has a half-life of 10 days, then after 10 days, half of the chemical will be gone. After another 10 days, half of the remaining chemical will be gone, and so on.

The half-life of a chemical can vary depending on the individual’s health and other factors. For example, a person with liver disease may have a slower rate of elimination for some chemicals. The amount of exposure to a toxic chemical also affects how long it stays in the body. The more exposure a person has, the longer the chemical may stay in the body.

What to do if You are Exposed to Toxic Chemicals

If you suspect toxic chemical exposure, it is important to take immediate action to protect your health. Here are some steps you can take:

    • Move to a Safe Area: If you are still in the area where the exposure occurred, move to a safe place as quickly as possible. This may mean leaving the building or moving to an area with fresh air.
    • Seek Medical Attention: If you are experiencing symptoms such as difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness, seek medical attention immediately. Call your local emergency services or go to the nearest hospital.
    • Follow Decontamination Procedures: Follow any decontamination procedures from your supervisor, medical professionals or emergency responders. This may involve showering or washing with soap and water.
    • Report the Incident: Report the incident to your supervisor and the appropriate authorities. This can help prevent future incidents and ensure that appropriate measures are taken to protect public health.
    • Contact a Maritime Injury Lawyer: Maritime workers have rights under maritime law. If you have toxic chemical exposure and develop an illness, you may be able to pursue compensation for your injuries and losses, such as medical expenses and loss of income.

How a Maritime Injury Lawyer Can Help

Why contact a maritime injury lawyer? Maritime law is complex, and the benefits that may apply to your case depend on several factors like your occupation, where the accident or exposure took place, and whether negligence is a factor.

Working with a maritime injury lawyer ensures preservation of your legal rights. Furthermore, it ensures that you have every opportunity to get the benefits and compensation you deserve. At Kherkher Garcia, we have more than 30 years of experience assessing, negotiating, and litigating maritime injury claims. Our team knows what it takes to protect your rights after toxic chemical exposure leaves you ill and feeling helpless.

Find out how our team can help you with your maritime injury case by calling us at 713-333-1030.

Schedule a free Consultation

Kevin Haynes

Kevin Haynes

Firm Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Firm Partner Kevin Haynes. Kevin has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 15 years. He has won $150 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. Kevin is powerful and effective in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been seriously injured at work or on the road.

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