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Toxic fumes on Gozo Channel?

Crew members are now wearing air-purifying masks

Passenger and commercial vehicles all getting ready to board the ferry. PHOTO: JOSEF CUTAJAR

Passenger and commercial vehicles all getting ready to board the ferry. PHOTO: JOSEF CUTAJAR

As passengers enter the car decks of Gozo Channel ferries in greater numbers than usual for the Santa Marija holiday, they will almost be able to taste the toxic fumes in the air.

They may also be greeted by the sight of crew members marshalling the cars while wearing air-purifying masks, or respirators.

Several passengers who spoke to The Sunday Times of Malta have been disturbed to see this trend – for the health-conscious, the masks are the canary in the mine.

“This isn’t a practice we’re used to on the ferries and it got me and others thinking that something is not quite right,” one commuter said.

Other travellers said that the wearing of masks, although not seen on every voyage, has been going on for the past five of six weeks, prompting questions about the level of gases like carbon monoxide that accumulate inside the car decks.

A source close to Gozo Channel told The Sunday Times of Malta that the ships’ extractors may not be coping with the exhaust fumes being emitted. The air inside the car deck became unbearable with the exhaust being belched out from passenger and commercial vehicles.

A crew member wearing a face mask for protection.A crew member wearing a face mask for protection.

 “An upgrade of the extractors is desperately needed to ensure full-air circulation inside the deck,” the source said.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colourless, tasteless but toxic pollutant that if inhaled could cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. It can be fatal in high doses, hence its nickname ‘silent killer’.

The Sunday Times of Malta asked Gozo Channel what kind of gases or fumes the masks were guarding against, what level of toxic fumes accumulates in the garage during a voyage, why crew members have only now been issued with masks when the ferries have been working round the clock for so many years, and if passengers were in harm’s way.

These and other questions were unanswered by the time of going to print.

The source said new and better extractors would not mean that the pollution would vanish but at least it would be suppressed.

The behaviour of drivers may be another factor that needs to be tackled: “During the 10 minutes before the ferry docks, you can hear most of the drivers simultaneously switching on their engines, waiting to tear themselves away from the ferry,” one passenger observed.

That’s like a knife struck in the heart for those who are health conscious

“That’s like a knife struck in the heart for those who are health conscious.”

Some drivers even keep their engines running throughout the journey, sitting ‘comfortably’ inside their four wheelers with their air conditioner on. This in spite of the garage decks sporting signs warning passengers not to stay in their cars and not to switch on their engines before being given a signal by a crew member.

“We’re just sitting ducks,” said Steve Pace, another regular commuter to Gozo.

“You can clearly see that the deck is sealed once the ramp is raised back into place, with cars packed like sardines and exhaust circling around in the air.

“It only takes one car to catch fire,” he added, highlighting another potential danger. “If a fire broke out, oxygen levels, which are already at a low ebb with vehicle engines running, would plummet.”

“Whoever stays in their vehicle and, worse still, keeps their machine switched on, should be heavily fined,” he said.

The sentiment was mirrored by passenger Tracy Mann, who said that drivers were possibly not aware enough of how dangerous exposure to carbon monoxide in such a confined space can be.

“Selfish individuals who keep their engines running should be fined. That’s one sure way we can start changing for the better. Hitting one’s pockets works most of the time,” she said.

The company’s website does warn passengers not to switch on their engines until given the signal. “This will help keep exhaust emissions on the vehicle decks to a minimum as fumes from idling engines can quickly accumulate during the unloading process,” it says.

Paul Rossiter, a former maintenance and process engineer who has lived in Gozo for some time, said it was high time drastic measures were taken about the situation.

“Wardens should go on board and fine passengers who stay in their vehicles, switched on, in the car deck, when it has little ventilation. Maybe with such a measure we can start to learn,” he added.

Read: Ship emissions more toxic than 30 Marsa power stations, scientist warns

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