MoD sued by aircrew over alleged exposure to carcinogenic helicopter fumes

<span>An RAF Puma helicopter flies over Kabul. The Puma and CH-47 Chinook, cited in the legal action, remain in service.</span><span>Photograph: UK Ministry of Defence/Getty Images</span>
An RAF Puma helicopter flies over Kabul. The Puma and CH-47 Chinook, cited in the legal action, remain in service.Photograph: UK Ministry of Defence/Getty Images

The Ministry of Defence is being sued by dozens of aircrew who were allegedly exposed to carcinogenic emissions from military helicopters, some of which are still in service.

At least three former helicopter crew members have died from cancer after being exposed to the toxic fumes, lawyers claim, according to a report in the Times.

The MoD knew about the potential risk from the fumes in Sea King helicopters in 1999, but took no precautions to protect crew, according to documents revealed during the disclosure process. The Sea King remained in service until 2018.

Three other helicopters are also cited in legal actions: the Westland Wessex, which was last used in 2003, and the Puma and CH-47 Chinook which remain in service.

Fumes from the engines of these aircraft contain benzene carcinogens.

Those who flew in these helicopters had suffered with various cancers including lung, testicular and throat cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the Times reported. Almost 40 people affected are suing the MoD with more expected in the coming weeks. Five others have reached out of court settlements.

One of the alleged victims was Kai Macnaughton, who died last year from a rare blood cancer after flying thousands of hours in Puma and Chinook helicopters. His widow, Clare Macnaughton, told the Times: “They are still knowingly poisoning aircrew, it is still going on, and they are still putting people at risk. This is another Horizon, it is another blood contamination scandal.”

Louisa Donaghy, a solicitor at Hugh James solicitors, who is representing the families, said: “Significant numbers of aircrew will have been exposed to these dangerous concentration levels of exhaust fumes and as a result may be at risk of cancer. The Ministry of Defence were aware that personnel were being exposed to high concentration levels of exhaust fumes, yet the personnel who flew the Sea King were not told. The MoD chose not to make them aware.

“They didn’t provide the personal protective equipment, they didn’t modify the aircraft by moving the exhaust and they didn’t take it out of service until 2018.”

Lawyers point out that when the German military became aware of the risks it installed longer exhausts to draw away toxic fumes from crew members.

Steven Horsley, a partner at Hugh James, said: “The cases that we are aware are the tip of the iceberg, these service personnel have given everything for their country and they are dying in ignorance. The Ministry of Defence knew about the risks but were unwilling to warn them. We can’t save them, but we can alert them to the true cause of their cancer. They deserve to know.

“It appears that generations of service personnel may be at risk of cancer and the fact that they haven’t been made aware of these risks and that the MOD failed to take any proactive measures to warn or protect them, is deeply concerning.”

In a statement, the MoD said: “We hugely value our service personnel and veterans and owe a debt of gratitude to all those who serve, often with great personal sacrifice. We continually review our policies to ensure they are aligned with good practice and protect our people from harm.

“Service personnel and veterans who believe they have suffered ill health due to service from 6 April 2005 have the existing and longstanding right to apply for no-fault compensation under the armed forces compensation scheme.”