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Pro Publica’s “Cruise Control” reveals crimes, deaths and emerging infectious diseases
Friends of the Earth issues an annual report card, grading the environmental aspects of cruise ships including sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, and water quality compliance. Pro Publica addresses a different facet of the cruise industry, which is just as disturbing. “Cruise Control,” an illustrative and interactive publication, opens with a “tour” of an archetypal cruise ship.
The tour commences in the kitchen, a breeding ground for contagious diseases. Even before the publication of the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program inspections, cruise ships have been recognized as prime sites for gastroenteritis (usually from contaminated food or water). The CDC inspections feature over 200 deficiencies related to food issues. From 2002-2015 there have been 264 illness outbreaks, primarily caused by norovirus but also from E. coli, Shigella, Cyclospora cayetanensis, Salmonella, Enterobacter, Entameoba histolytica, and Giardia.
Next, we take a dip in the pool, but we should swim at our own risk because most cruise ships lack lifeguards, contributing to the nearly half a dozen cases of drowning or near drowning accidents over the past few years. Even though more than 1.5 million children go on cruises per year, the three largest cruise lines (Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise lines) fail to employ lifeguards. Mike Winkleman, a maritime attorney representing the family of a 4 year old boy who drowned on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, told USA Today: “It’s all about money for them. Because there’s such a small amount of space on the ships, [whenever] they can either have a crew member or a passenger on board, they always choose the passengers, because the passengers are spending money.”
Looking for a reprieve from this disheartening news, we retire to the stateroom. Upon entry, we have to be wary, sexual assault is the number one crime on cruise ships and only thefts upwards of $10,000 have to be reported to the FBI and US Coast Guard. In the case of a crime, the passengers must remember that they have very different legal options on the water and the fine print of a ticket might include certain clauses constricting types of grievances, length of time to file a lawsuit, and location of a trial. After Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 32 passengers, anyone deciding to sue was unable to file in US courts. Spencer Aronfeld, an attorney specializing in cruise ship related injuries, describes the situation: “These cruise ships are like floating cities with their own set of laws.”
Once we leave the stateroom, we need to be conscientious of stairs and raised doorsills. Trips and falls are the most common accidents on the often slippery, unsteady cruise ships. When fueled by all inclusive alcohol, navigating a cruise ship can be dangerous. While most accidents tend to be minor slips and spills, sometimes fires and shipwrecks occur. A 2013 engine fire caused Carnival Triumph, dubbed the “Poop Cruise”, to strand 3,000 passengers with limited food and water, and hallways flooded with human excrement. Another fire occurred on Oceania’s Insignia, which led to the death of three people (two contractors and a crew member) and the hospitalization of five more. In addition to worrying about fires and groundings, crew members are subject to the labor laws of the country where the cruise ship is flagged and several are considered flags of convenience. Even if the cruise ship stops frequently at U.S. ports, the crew isn’t protected by U.S. labor laws. Most cruise lines register their ships in countries that are considered flags of convenience such as the Bahamas, Malta, the Netherlands, or Panama. The only large cruise ship included in the Friends of the Earth report card that is registered in the United States is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America. Flags of convenience allow ship owners to take advantage of lower taxes, limited regulations and cheap labor. According to Fortune, in 2014 Carnival Corporation sailed its way to the list of top corporate tax avoiders alongside 27 other corporations on the S&P 500 index.
The tour culminates on the deck, offering ethereal views and fresh ocean breezes. Paradise awaits, or does it? As many as 25 people fall over rails of cruise ships annually. While some of those are sadly people taking their own lives, other disappearances are never solved. In addition, cruise lines are supposed to have proper lifeboats, but the top Coast Guard deficiencies from its 2014 safety inspections were due to issues with lifeboats and lifesaving equipment. Firefighting and other safety issues ranked high on the list as well. When cruise ships end up sailing into dangerous weather like Disney Fantasy during Hurricane Sandy, having the proper equipment on board is incredibly important. And then there are uncontrollable weather events, such as a tornado and severe weather causing the capsizing of the Eastern Star on the Yangtze River in China, where even deficient lifesaving equipment will not make a difference. The latest news reports that sadly there are only 14 survivors of the 405 passengers on the Eastern Star.
If you want to see the full Pro Publica list of deficiencies and results of inspections you can search or click on an individual ship. This brings you to a detailed analysis including background information, notable events, flags of convenience, current position, details/reviews, the deck layout, CDC health inspections, Coast Guard inspections, illness outbreaks, and crimes/incidents.
And for a great companion to the Pro Publica report, check out the Friends of the Earth Cruise Ship Report Card.