Outbreaks on ships: 8 environmental things that can happen

When it comes to outbreaks on ships, Norovirus, Influenza or recent COVID-19 there can be lots of environmental implications. Sadly, only on a few occasions these are mentioned or discussed. The media shows us mostly the human and financial implications of outbreaks on ships but what exactly happens behind the scenes, and how is the environment impacted?

Norovirus or AGE (Acute Gastrointestinal Illness) has been by far the most associated illness with cruise ships, although, breaking news, the virus does not live onboard! It is brought onboard and due to poor hygiene (not washing hands after the bathroom or before a meal) can be easily passed from one person to another. The main symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting so as you can imagine, it is not the most pleasant experience.

Influenza which is also know as the common “flu” can also spread very fast and sometimes, can be dangerous as it can lead to health complications. The latest complication is that, in 2020, influenza symptoms are very similar to COVID-19. Long gone are the days when friends and family would come visit you even when you are sick and didn’t mind catching it.

But while we all are, or should be, very familiar with the above mentioned illnesses most of the world does not know/ does not pay attention or does not want to know what are the environmental implications are and how exactly is the environment affected during an outbreak. Today we will only refer to cruise ship outbreaks as this has always been a hot topic, even more so, this year.

First, let me just say that I haven’t been on a cruise ship during a COVID-19 outbreak and I hope I will never experience it. I can only imagine how difficult it was for the crew back in April – May to go through the lockdown and deal with all the restrictions the world was imposing. I did however experience smaller scale outbreaks of norovirus and influenza and, from an environmental point of view, here are some things that can happen:

1.The usage of sanitising chemicals will increase significantly. Although, under normal operation these chemicals are being used daily, during an outbreak the frequency of sanitising surfaces can go from once a day to once every 20 minutes. And that’s ok if we are talking about a chemical that can be wiped out and let to air dry. The challenge is when chemicals are being used in areas that will need to be drained (galley floors, bathrooms, toilets and sinks etc). Luckily, cruise ships have been for a long time equipped with advanced waste water treatment system and can manage and treat wastewater streams effectively.

2. Overuse of wastewater treatment system. Most cruise ship wastewater treatment plants have a bioreactor where living bacteria break down the organics. As you can expect, that bacteria will not be very happy to receive too much sanitiser for meal. So in order to keep the bacteria happy and healthy the engineering team will need to pay extra attention at how the treatment plant is performing. This can cause a lot of stress on the plant itself and on the team working to maintain it.

3. The usage of water per person will rise. Everyone will be encouraged to wash wash and wash again their hands. Areas of the ship will be washed, water will keep on running everywhere so yes, higher consumption of water during an outbreak it is a certainty.

4. More fuel will be burned. Well let’s look at it this way: if you’re gonna use more water onboard, you will have to produce more water. In order to produce more water you will have to either run your Reverse Osmosis Plant and convert sea water into fresh water or run you Evaporators and use the waste heat of your engines to produce fresh water. Either way, this will imply a higher fuel consumption.

5. More wastewater will be produced. This also comes in connection with the other points above. The laundry will work at full capacity (towels, linen, uniforms etc) the cleaning and washing will be at full capacity so it is only logic that the quantities of wastewater produced will be higher than during a normal operation.

6. Increased usage of disposable materials. Masks, gloves, single use coveralls, paper cups, plastic wrapping and anything else that has to be discarded due to contamination risks. Although nobody likes them, during an outbreak they become necessary.

7. More hazardous waste will be produced. And not only hazardous but regular garbage as well. All the rags that have been used with chemicals will be landed shoreside for treatment and disposal. The medical facility will produce extra bio-hazardous waste and any item suspected to be contaminated, if it cannot be properly disinfected, will be treated as hazardous and discarded to shore-based specialised facilities.

8. Crew exhaustion. Although this is not directly related to the marine environment I still consider it an environmental impact. Crew members on ship work 7 days a week, morning till evening with a few breaks in between and are on call 24/7. When there is an outbreak on top of their daily duties, they also have to clean extra, assist each other, assist other departments, pay extra attention and take care of themselves as well. After a week the exhaustion sets in and from there on, accidents can happen.

So as you see, outbreaks are bad for everyone from all points of view. I hope this article brings a deeper understanding on what happens behind the scenes on cruise ships during an outbreak. So please, wash you hands often and not just because of COVID-19 but make it a habit of good hygiene for your sake, everyone’s sake and for the environment as well.

Feel free to use the comment below for any questions or if you need additional information on something that was mentioned in the article.

Stay healthy!