18 May 2021 | Comment | Article by Ruth Davies

Exposure to exhaust fumes from Sea King helicopters

Exposure to exhaust fumes from Sea King helicopters (just like those flown by the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William) can cause cancers, particularly rare cancers.

The RAF Sea King entered service in 1978 as a search and rescue helicopter and in 1996 replaced the Wessex helicopters. Sea King helicopters carry 4 crew members in addition to up to 18 survivors or up to six stretchers. It was powered by two Rolls Royce Gnome gas turbines. The Sea King was phased out of service in 2017 and was replaced by civilian helicopter in the search and rescue role.

Two ex-servicemen recently pursued civil claims against the MoD for exposure to toxic exhaust fumes from Sea King helicopters causing rare cancers and negotiated out of court settlements. [1] [2]

As a result of these cases documents have emerged from as far back as 1999 to show that the MoD were aware of the potential risks associated with inhaling toxic exhaust fumes of the Sea King helicopters. A report recommended modifications to the aircraft to divert the exhaust fumes from the cabin door but the MoD failed to act on these recommendations despite further reports being carried out since with further recommendations relating to PPE which was not provided. The MoD also failed to make servicemen aware of the potential dangers and the risk of cancers developing.

In 2017, the European Aviation Safety Agency prepared a report on “Characterisation of the toxicity of aviation turbine engine oils after pyrolysis”[3]. The study found that Sea King rescue helicopter crews are frequently subjected to engine exhaust fumes.

Scientists investigated how much carbon monoxide (CO) pilots are exposed to and whether they exhibit symptoms. The research, carried out by University of California Professor Michael Busch, found that exposure to engine fumes is common, especially when crews are working near the open cargo doors. The study looked at 37 crew members' SpCO levels over a two-week period. It found 64% were exposed to engine exhaust fumes during an average training session lasting 80 minutes with symptoms of exhaustion, headaches and nausea seen in 8.6% of the crew members. This was mainly during open cargo door operations. 29% of the crew members had carboxyhaemoglobin saturation (SpCO) levels outside the normal range after their flight with the highest recording being at 7%. The normal range for SpCO levels is less than 4%. The study concluded: 'Exposure to engine fumes is common, even more so during open cargo door operations.[4] 

Have you served in the RAF since 1987 and been exposed to exhaust fumes from Sea King helicopters, whether by being a flight crew member or engineer, and been diagnosed with cancer? If so, you may be able to bring a claim against the MoD.

Hugh James provides specialist legal services to current and ex-military personnel. For more information or advice, visit our Military page.

[1] A former pilot has cancer caused by helicopter's fumes. Another exposed was...our future king  | Daily Mail Online

[2] Second airman who flew in choppers like those flown by Prince William wins payout after rare cancer (thesun.co.uk)

[3] EASA/2007/… (europa.eu)

[4] Carbon Monoxide Exposure in Norwegian Rescue Helicopters - ScienceDirect

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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