Inadequate ventilation, poor maintenance and old equipment are being blamed for causing a buildup of potentially hazardous airborne mould aboard Canada’s most advanced warships, newly released Defence Department documents show.
The department’s Directorate of Force Health Protection says an air quality assessment aboard HMCS Winnipeg found higher-than-normal levels of mould spores in three compartments while the frigate was sailing from Tokyo to Hawaii in July 2017.
The navy first learned of mould problems in its frigates in 2011 as the ships were being prepared for a thorough modernization process that concluded in 2016.
A report from March 2015 — prepared by the engineering firm Bronswerk and released this week — found the frigates’ ventilation and air conditioning systems had “significantly degraded” over the years because of a lack of maintenance, leaving the equipment “old and unsupportable.”
The findings are important because some sailors have long complained of health problems they say could be related to mould exposure while serving aboard Canada’s 12 Halifax-class frigates.
“It’s proof the navy was pretty much lying about keeping track and looking after the mould,” said Alan Doucette, a retired navy lieutenant who served aboard two destroyers in the early 2000s before he was medically released in 2012.
“It’s vindication. It’s proof that they let the whole system deteriorate while people were serving on-board … I lost my career over it.”
Doucette has filed a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging his health was ruined by exposure to mould while serving on ships that had the same heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems as the frigates.
“It just shows that the brass at the top has no regard for the people doing the job at sea,” he said in an interview Friday.
He said he knows of many sailors who are afraid to come forward to reveal their ongoing health problems for fear of being medically released.
“Those living in fear can’t do anything and continue to silently suffer and deteriorate,” he said.
The military officer in charge of naval engineering says the warships’ mould problems have been fixed, and he insisted the health of sailors remains the navy’s top priority.
“Every single system that we have on-board has a maintenance routine associated with it (and) the HVAC system is no exception,” Commodore Simon Page said in an interview Friday.
“Knowing the state of affairs now, the engineering changes we have put in place, and the review done for maintenance procedures over the last few years, I’m extremely comfortable that the proper actions are being taken for our ships remain in good standing for our crew … and their living conditions. “
In all, 20 of Winnipeg’s compartments showed some accumulation of dust or mould.
Airborne mould concentrations were found to be above background levels in an air conditioning plant, the ship’s solid-waste handling plant and an equipment room near the helicopter landing pad. High levels of humidity were also recorded in all three locations.
Page, the navy’s director general of maritime equipment, said the mould problem aboard Winnipeg was minor.
“We had a very small amount of mould in four compartments,” he said. “I would not qualify this as a mould problem. And three of these four compartments are not manned.”
When asked about the potential for the air conditioning system to spread mould throughout the ship, Page said there was a quick fix for that.
“For that problem, we were very aggressive with the issue,” he said, adding that all 12 ships have been modified to prevent water buildup in the air conditioning system. “It was one of those engineering changes that was effected promptly.”
A recent assessment of HMCS Calgary showed even better results, Page said.
While there are no standard exposure limits for airborne concentrations of mould or mould spores, the December 2017 air quality assessment of HMCS Winnipeg says mould is hazardous for people with compromised immune systems or mould allergies.
The Royal Canadian Navy should improve the ships’ ventilation and require more frequent cleaning and inspections of ducts and filters, the report says.