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Dangerous goods incidents
The following are factual scenarios relating to some of the dangerous goods incidents involving passengers which have come to the attention of the CASA over the past couple of years. The persons involved in a number of the incidents which occured in Australian were prosecuted and received heavy monetary fines.
- A passenger arriving on an international flight was detected by Customs officials during routine screening of checked baggage carrying 5ml of mercury. Mercury is a Class 8 dangerous goods and is highly corrosive to aluminium. Not the sort of substance which should be carried in passenger’s baggage. Fortunately, none had escaped. The passenger was counselled.
- A shipper from the Middle East sent some dental supplies to a colleague in Sydney. He used the postal system and the consignment was transported by air both internationally and domestically. The dental supplies included a glass container of about 100 mls of mercury. The glass container broke during transport and leaked into the hold of the aircraft. Fortunately it was discovered and cleaned up - very costly. Had it not been discovered, significant weaknesses in the skin of the aircraft could have occurred. A side benefit to this incident was the discovery that the consignee in Australia was practising dentistry illegally.
- A passenger arriving on an international flight was picked up by Customs, on a routine check, carrying a quantity of flammable solids and corrosive material in checked baggage. The passenger was counselled.
- On arriving at their destination, one passenger's bag had smoke coming out of it. A check by the airline revealed that a cigarette lighter had ignited and burned some of the clothing.
- While unloading baggage, porters noticed smoke rising from a suitcase. Investigation revealed that a quantity of book matches had caught alight. (In recent years there have been several incidents similar to this.) Book matches have a habit of igniting when subject to vibrations experienced by suitcases stacked in an aircraft cargo compartment. It has even happened while the matches have been in pockets and brief cases. Should such an incident occur when the same passenger has also packed a leaking tin of paint thinners or similar then it might become more interesting.
- A courier driver arrived at a freight forwarder’s premises and asked to pick up a large crate which contained black powder (an explosive). The crate had travelled from the east by air and was not consigned or carried by the airline as dangerous goods. The freight forwarder became suspicious and notified CASA. Investigation revealed that the owner of the crate had deliberately consigned it as non-dangerous then travelled the same route on a different aircraft. The person was arrested by Federal Police and prosecuted. The person served six months of a two year sentence. The sentencing judge said that it was clear that the person knew he was committing a crime and knowingly and recklessly placed the lives of passengers in great danger. Reinforcing this was the fact that the same person was picked up in a different airport a few days earlier with a brief case full of fireworks after travelling on an aircraft.
- Federal Police were called to a baggage carousel at an International Airport regarding an unclaimed bag. An inspection of the contents revealed a fire extinguisher (dangerous goods), a blue pullover and a packet of sandwiches. A report was submitted to CASA who traced the baggage ticket to a resident, just arrived from overseas, who denied any knowledge of the bag. Enquiries were made back through the airport where the bag was first checked in. The baggage was traced to a taxi driver who regularly drops passengers at the airport. It was finally discovered that the passenger had inadvertently taken the taxi driver’s bag from the boot and had not noticed that he checked in an additional bag. This shows how easily things can happen. Also it is assumed that the taxi driver was wondering what happened to his lunch.
- A passenger returned from holidays overseas with several flares and explosive primers in the checked baggage. The person was also carrying some plant material which the Quarantine officers picked up. They noticed that the person was nervous and directed the person to the customs line for a full check. During that check the explosives were detected. The person was prosecuted and fined a considerable sum of money.
- A passenger arrived in a capital city after travelling on a small regional aircraft and was transferring to a larger aircraft when a Police drug detection dog showed a considerable interest in the passenger’s baggage. The passenger was asked what was in his bag which excited the dog and the passenger admitted to carrying fireworks. The matter was referred to CASA who investigated and recommended to the DPP that the passenger be prosecuted for an offence against the Civil Aviation Act. The passenger was fined $5,000.
- A shipper consigned a wet cell battery undeclared as dangerous goods. Before consignment he emptied the acid out of the battery but failed to protect the terminals. He also, apparently in the same package, placed a brake cable. On arrival of the aircraft, the package was smouldering from the heat generated from the brake cable short circuiting the terminals. On unloading the package burst into flames. It is suspected that the reason the package was only smouldering in the aircraft hold was due to the lack of oxygen caused by a significant quantity of dry ice in that hold. Your luck is really in when one item of dangerous goods prevents a serious problem with another.
- In a cargo hangar, a container, which had been stuffed in a container loading area some miles away was sitting on the loading dock prior to being loaded onto a passenger aircraft. The cargo burst into flames. Airport emergency services were called to control a fierce blaze. One item of cargo in the container was, it was later learned, an oxygen generator - undeclared as dangerous goods. These devices produce oxygen by chemical reaction which creates significant heat. The fire services had several attempts at extinguishing the fire but it kept on erupting and burned almost the entire contents of the container. It was fortunate that it did not erupt four or five hours later over the Pacific Ocean, as in spite of the fire fighting facilities in the aircraft cargo hold, this fire would have fed upon the oxygen it was creating.
It is easy to draw some parallels here with an aircraft that crashed into the Indian Ocean some years ago as a result of what is strongly suspected to be undeclared bottles of nitric acid. They broke and caused a severe fire by igniting other organic material in the vicinity. Another recent accident which also involved these oxygen generators highlights the need for declaration and proper packaging of all dangerous goods.
- Undeclared dangerous goods described as "laundry products" loaded about two hours earlier almost caused the loss of a passenger aircraft. By the time the aircraft landed, the floor had started to sag from the heat generated by a fire caused by a mixture of a hydrogen peroxide solution, an oxidiser, and about 12 kg of a sodium based orthosilicate-based mixture (a corrosive solid.) Because the consignment was not declared as DG, no labels or orientation markings were on the package. It was loaded on its side in the cargo compartment and the liquid leaked onto the solid causing a very hot fire. It was estimated by aircraft accident investigators that this aircraft could have broken in two within another 10-15 minutes.
- An aircraft crashed due, it is thought, to a flammable liquid, probably contained in passengers stowed baggage, leaking. An ignition source ignited the liquid causing the explosion which caused the aircraft to crash with the death of all on board.
While the more critical of these incidents occurred overseas and mostly in high volume cargo consignments, it indicates that significant incidents, bordering on accidents, can happen. We would like to prevent such a thing occurring in Australia or on any Australian aircraft.
Following are examples of some of the incidents which have been reported by the major domestic operators recently in Australia. All involved undeclared dangerous goods in cargo consignments:
- leaking/spillage of acid from wet cell batteries - three incidents
- spillage from fuel tanks on motor mowers, chain saws and other internal combustion engines - at least four incidents.
- explosives (1.4S) - 2 incidents
- aerosol pressure packs - at least four incidents
- flammable paint/thinners - at least four incidents
It is interesting that in a number of these incidents, investigation has revealed that not only was the shipper at fault for not declaring the dangerous goods, there was a sufficient number of tell-tale signs that should have alerted the cargo acceptance staff that there may be something wrong. For example, in one case the shipper described the consignment as "paint" on the consignment note - yet it got through. It is difficult to understand how a chain saw or a motor mower with fuel in the tank can be accepted without question. (Perhaps the dangerous goods training had been inadequate.)
It is also interesting that there has been only one or two reports of incidents occurring outside of the big aircraft operators. It is suspected that incidents do occur in the general aviation area but that perhaps they are not recognised as a problem or the procedures are not in place for reporting.
Throughout the world, in addition to those accidents where the cause has been established beyond doubt, there have been aircraft crashes, resulting in the deaths of all on board, where the cause has never been determined. It is possible that dangerous goods were involved in some of these crashes.
It should also be noted that, from all of the hundreds of incidents reported involving both domestic and international cargo, less than one percent involved dangerous goods which had been properly declared, packaged, labelled and documented.