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As of October 1, 2020, NLM will discontinue the Tox Town website, This change is part of NLM’s initiative to align and consolidate the Library’s consumer health information to make it easier for online health information seekers to find and navigate trusted health information from NLM.

We invite users to visit topics related to environmental health, safety, and toxicology on MedlinePlus, the NLM’s flagship website for health information for patients, families, and the general public. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) also offers related resources that may be of interest: Kids Environment, Kids Health, Health & Education, and For Educators. If you have questions or suggestions, please contact NLM Customer Service.

Boats and Ships


Cruise vacations and boating are favorite pastimes in the United States, but they also present environmental health hazards. Cruises pose a risk for illness. Sewage, wastewater, and garbage created by ships, boats, and marinas pollute the environment. Construction hazards and exposure to toxic chemicals at shipyards can threaten the health of workers and nearby communities.

See also: Gasoline Pesticides

What is Cruise Ship?

A cruise ship is a large ship that stops at different ports and carries passengers who are traveling for pleasure. Cruises are becoming more popular, and cruise ships are getting larger. These floating cities can carry thousands of people and often operate in coastal waters.

Why is Cruise Ship a concern?

As the cruise ship industry expands, there is growing concern about its impact on human health. Traveling on a cruise ship brings large numbers of people together in a confined and crowded environment. It also exposes them to new places. Stomach and intestinal illnesses linked to food or water consumed on board are possible. So are diseases spread by personal contact, such as flu and some forms of pneumonia. 

Sewage, wastewater, and garbage generated by cruise ships can pollute the marine environment and contaminate shellfish. They can also make water unusable for fishing, swimming, and other recreation. Trash thrown overboard from cruise ships can pollute beaches and clog the engines or propellers of other boats.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Cruise passengers and crew may be at risk for norovirus, a common cause of viral gastroenteritis found on cruise ships. Gastroenteritis is a highly contagious intestinal infection marked by diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.
Other concerns include:

  • Cruise ships with diesel engines, which emit exhaust that is high in harmful pollutants.
  • Chemicals used at hair salons and dry cleaners on board, which raise the same health concerns as land-based businesses. 

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Motion Sickness

    Curated links to current consumer health information on motion sickness. These English and Spanish web resources include genetics, clinical trials, and journal articles.

  • Traveler's Health

    Curated links to current consumer information on traveler's health. These English and Spanish web resources include background information; related issues; specifics; clinical trials; journal articles; subject matter experts; and targeted resources for children, women, seniors; and patient handouts.

Additional Resources

  • Cruise Ship Travel (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

    Information on health concerns associated with cruise ship travel, including specific health risks and preventive measures for travelers.

What are Marinas and Boats?

A marina has docks, moorings, supplies, and other facilities for privately owned recreational boats. 

Why are Marinas and Boats a concern?

Pollution created by boats, marinas, and water runoff can enter the water directly. Pollution can be released when refueling, doing boat maintenance, or pumping out bilge water that collects in the bottom of a boat. 

Dumping untreated sewage into the water from a marina or boat can pollute water and spread bacteria, viruses, and parasites, causing illness and even death in humans. Sewage can contaminate shellfish and feed harmful algae blooms, making it unsafe to eat local seafood.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

  • Potential pollutants from marinas and boats include antifreeze, cleaning solvents, detergents, diesel, gasoline, and oil.
  • Heavy metals used in boat maintenance include arsenic, chromium, copper, and zinc. 
  • Boat engines release air pollutants that contribute to ground-level ozone and smog.
  • Workers, boat owners, and visitors at marinas are at risk. Communities surrounding marinas may also be at risk, particularly if members swim nearby.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Water Safety (Recreational)

    Curated links to current consumer health information on recreational water safety, including related health effects and conditions, health check tools, statistics and research, journal articles, subject matter experts, targeted resources for children and teenagers, and patient handouts.

  • Drowning

    Curated links to current consumer health information on drowning. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, journal articles, and patient handouts.

  • Motion Sickness

    Curated links to current consumer health information on motion sickness. These English and Spanish web resources include genetics, clinical trials, and journal articles.

  • Water Pollution

    Curated links to current consumer health information on the health effects of water pollution. These English and Spanish web resources include background information, prevention and risk factors, related issues, specifics, video tutorials, statistics and research, clinical trials, journal articles, relevant agencies, and targeted resources for children and teenagers.

Additional Resources

What are Shipping Ports?

Shipping originally meant the business of transporting goods and materials by ship, but now also includes air, rail, and truck transport. Commercial ships are supported by marine terminals that are built near bays, rivers, or coasts. The terminals include docks, piers, and structures for handling cargo and materials to and from ships, storage, trains, and trucks. 

Marine terminals contain warehouses, storage yards, grain elevators, maintenance and repair shops, truck depots, train yards, and equipment such as cranes, tractors, and forklifts to load and unload cargo. They may be large, complex freight transportation centers handling trailer-size shipping containers, petroleum products, industrial chemicals, agricultural goods, and consumer products from toys to new cars. 

Why are Shipping Ports a concern?

Through the operation of ships and marine terminals, the shipping industry can pose human health threats. Ships emit air pollution from burning fuel. Sewage, solid waste, oily water waste, and contaminated waste collected on ships are discharged into onshore holding tanks. A ship’s ballast and bilge tanks may be emptied of dirty water into the surrounding waters. 

Longshoring refers to the loading and handling of cargo, gear, or other materials to and from a ship. Hazardous cargos can be especially dangerous to workers and must be carefully handled to avoid spills and harm.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

Newer diesel engines are less polluting than older steam engines that burn oil or coal. However, diesel-powered equipment at marine terminals, such as trucks, tractors, and forklifts, contributes to air pollution. Excessive particulate matter and dust may be released during cargo handling. 

Workers in the shipping industry can be exposed to air pollution at a marine terminal or to chemicals in gasoline, diesel, or other fuels. They also face the safety hazards of operating heavy-duty trucks, cranes, forklifts, and other moving equipment.

Additional Resources

  • Maritime Industry (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

    Links to resources for identifying, reducing, and eliminating workplace hazards associated with working in the maritime industry.

What is Shipyard?

A shipyard is a facility for shipbuilding, repair, maintenance, and shipbreaking. Some shipyards also build offshore oil and natural gas drilling platforms. 

Shipbuilding and ship repair activities include painting, surface preparation, tank cleaning, and all aspects of marine construction. Shipbreaking means taking a ship apart for scrap or disposal at the end of its useful life.

Why is Shipyard a concern?

Shipyards are dangerous construction zones with many worker hazards. Shipbuilding, repair, cleaning, and coating use toxic chemicals and hazardous or flammable materials. These activities also can pollute water directly or through runoff.

Repairs may require emptying dirty water from a ship’s ballast and bilge tanks into the surrounding waters.

What pollutants are of greatest concern and who is at risk?

  • Shipbuilding and ship repair use toxic chemicals that include chromium, copper, lead, and nickel. 
  • Ship cleaning activities use chemicals that include copper, hazardous or flammable materials, heavy metals, and solvents. They release lead, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, zinc, and other air pollutants
  • Shipbreaking can involve removing hazardous materials, such as preservatives, paints, fuel and cargo residues, and insulating materials, including asbestos.

Workers at shipyards are at risk. Communities surrounding shipyards may also be at risk, particularly if members swim nearby.

Additional Resources

  • Shipbuilding and Ship Repair (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)

    Information on chemical, physical, and safety hazards associated with working in shipbuilding and ship repair, including standards, fire protection, solutions, and links to additional resources.

Reduce your risk

  • Do you own or operate a boat?
  • Do you take cruise vacations?
  • Don’t dump untreated sewage, garbage or chemicals into the water from marina or boat.
  • When refueling, avoid fuel spills.
  • Eliminate unnecessary idling of your boat.
  • Follow manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule for boat repairs.
  • Prepare engines properly for winter storage.
  • Always wear life preservers when boating, even if you know how to swim.
  • Learn CPR.
  • Wash hands before eating, especially on cruise ship.

Don’t let children play near shipyards.
Children should always wear life jackets when boating.

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