How cold, for how long? The role of temperature in hazmat shipping.

The prospect of COVID-19 vaccines being approved in the near future has a lot of people suddenly thinking about cold chain shipping.

But keeping vaccine doses extremely cold is only the, er, tip of the iceberg when it comes to temperature-controlled shipping. This time of year, with another brutal northern winter on its way, shippers of hundreds of different commodities have to rethink how weather and temperature impact their shipments.

These considerations often intersect with Dangerous Goods regulations to make everything more complex. Here’s a quick look at some temperature-related issues shippers need to think about this winter.

Extreme cold: COVID-19 vaccines

Vaccines usually aren’t Dangerous Goods because they aren’t pathogenic viruses. But that doesn’t mean they’re simple to ship. As Labelmaster Senior Manager Jay Johnson discussed last week, most COVID-19 vaccines will have to be kept very cold.

Fortunately, currently available dry ice packaging should keep most COVID-19 vaccine doses at their required temperatures. (Certain vaccines may actually need to be shipped with cryogenic liquid nitrogen, but we won’t go into that here.) Everyone in the supply chain should be aware that dry ice is a fully regulated Class 9 hazmat (UN 1845) when shipped by air—and given their importance, most COVID-19 vaccine doses will likely be shipped by air.

Another key component of COVID-19 vaccine shipping will be battery-powered temperature data loggers, which may have hazmat implications of their own. That’s one more factor that will make shipping these vaccines, in Johnson’s words “an overwhelming logistical challenge.”

COVID-19 test samples and other biologicals

With all the justified excitement about vaccines, let’s not forget that millions of COVID-19 test samples are also being transported every week. It’s critical that these samples be shipped properly, since damaged samples are more likely to yield false negative results—and someone who’s told they don’t have the virus (when they actually do) may unwittingly spread it to dozens or hundreds of others.

Unlike vaccines, COVID-19 test samples are pathogenic viruses, so they are Dangerous Goods, and shipments from testing sites to diagnostic facilities must be:

  • labeled as Biological Substances, Category B (UN 3373), and
  • shipped in temperature-controlled packaging to keep frozen or between 2 – 8 °C (35.6 – 46.4 °F) at all times.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends that shipments include temperature indicators to ensure they’ve remained in the proper temperature range. Labelmaster’s Category B kits for shipping COVID-19 test samples contain everything you need to ship these critical specimens safely and compliantly.

Other biological substances, of course, may require different packaging and labeling, particularly if they are classified as Category A infectious substances such as Ebola, which are considered immediately life-threatening and are governed by far more restrictive regulations. Please consult an expert if you have any questions about shipping any sort of regulated biological substances.

More essentials for winter hazmat shipping

With extreme temperatures on the way, many other shipments—both ordinary and hazardous—need a little extra protection to ensure they arrive safely. This time of year, savvy hazmat pros make sure they stock:

  • Temperature controlled packaging. Whether you’re keeping things extremely cold or just making sure they stay room temperature, well-designed, insulated packing and passive temperature control packs are essential.
  • Damage indicators. From basic freeze indicators to more advanced thermometers and temperature data loggers, damage indicators are crucial to ensuring a package’s contents remain safe.
  • Labels and placards for extreme cold. Severe cold and winter storms can damage ordinary labels and placards, but not these. With material designed for cryogenic laboratories, they adhere down to -320°F.

Also, while not strictly required for safe and compliant Dangerous Goods shipping, warm gloves and hearty soup are considered essential this time of year by most supply chain professionals. Mom may not know much about vaccine shipping, but you can always count on her for good advice!

Make sure your shipments are safe and in complete compliance with a full line of solutions from Labelmaster—a full-service provider of goods and services for hazardous materials and Dangerous Goods professionals, shippers, transport operators and EH&S providers.


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