Guidelines on the provision of drinking water at sea are currently provided by numerous different bodies including the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and national health organisations and maritime bodies. Though well-intentioned, the current guidelines are largely ineffective because they vary so widely and are therefore difficult to implement and enforce. The introduction of overarching regulation set out in the MLC and by the World Health Organisation (WHO) governing seafarers’ rights is expected to address this. MLC 2006 Standard A3.2 – Food and Catering, paragraph 7 states that “the competent authority shall require that frequent documented inspections be carried out on board ships, by or under the authority of the master, with respect to….supplies of drinking water”.
This is further strengthened by the WHO Guide to Ship Sanitation (2011) & Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality (2008) which lists the following “recommended parameters to be monitored:…E. coli or coliforms; Chlorine residual (daily); Microbial quality – bacterial plate count; pH (daily); Turbidity; Corrosion-related contaminants – iron & copper.”
Factors that can promote the growth of bacteria and toxins in a ship’s water supply include limited flow rate, tank or pipe corrosion, alkalinity or acidity and temperature. Often, these problems occur together, accelerating the growth of bacteria. Unfortunately, the growth of bacteria also worsens these issues, for example, some bacteria produce carbon dioxide, which reacts with the water to increase acidity, resulting in more corrosion.
Bacteria and pathogens that can grow in poorly maintained drinking water include E.coli, Norovirus, Salmonella and Legionella bacteria, which can lead to Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like illness which can be fatal. The importance of avoiding these bacteria is particularly heightened on a vessel which could be days from the nearest port and for which delays or route changes for medical assistance could cost thousands.
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