Playing with fire: Undeclared dangerous goods

September 2011, ‘FAA slams MIT for lithium battery shipping error’; July 2011, ‘Lithium batteries among cargo on crashed Asiana 747-400F’; and October 2010, ‘FAA issues safety alert on lithium batteries after UPS crash’ – all headlines pointing to the growing problem of undeclared dangerous goods. These headlines also sum up the concern being felt within the air cargo industry over the illegal shipment of potentially lethal products. Marie-Louise Morley examines the difficult environment surrounding this critical issue.

FedEx Undeclared dangerous goods

Playing with fire: Undeclared dangerous goods

Despite the dramatic rise of battery-related freight and baggage fires over the last 20 years, the shipment of lithium batteries is simply one example of the thousands of potentially dangerous goods that are shipped without properly being identified. A stark illustration of how dangerous goods can cause a catastrophe if they are not prepared for transport in accordance with strict International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations occurred in May 1996 when a Valujet flight crashed killing all 105 passengers and 5 crew on board. This time it was not lithium batteries that caused the crash, but the improper carriage in the cargo hold of chemical oxygen generators, the devices used in the passenger cabin to provide oxygen in the event of depressurisation. While they do not pose a danger when fitted to the aircraft in normal usage, if the generator comes into contact with any combustible material, such as packaging, it can (and did) ignite.

A growing risk

Unfortunately the risk of such a fire has grown considerably in recent years due to the surge in the shipment of undeclared dangerous goods that constitute potential fire hazards. These include new and used electronic products containing lithium batteries, smokeless cigarettes, fireworks, gunpowder and even model rocket engines. Sold via online auction and retail web-sites such as eBay, the concern with shipping such items lies in the fact that frequently neither the seller nor the buyer has any understanding that these are considered dangerous goods. As they are not declared as dangerous goods, these potentially incendiary devices are not properly identified, and so are not safely packaged and positioned in the aircraft in accordance with dangerous goods regulations . Today, th e s e goods represent the biggest risk of fire in air cargo transportation, a risk that is increasing year -on-year as the popularity of Internet trading grows. IATA’s head of dangerous goods, David Brennan, described this worrying trend as “the Wild West of dangerous goods.” Perhaps most concerning of all, however, is his admission at this year’s IATA’s Wor ld Ca rg o Symposium that there is very little the industry can do about it. Geoff Leach, manager of the dangerous goods office at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority comments: “The fact of the matter is nobody knows the real size of the problem. In the UK we receive around 1000 Dangerous Goods Occurrence Reports from airlines and their handling agents, the majority of which involve undeclared dangerous goods. What we don’t know, of course, is the number of undeclared dangerous goods which reach their destination without being detected. “What I can say however is that the number of reports received is increasing rapidly year-on-year, although a greater awareness of the reporting requirements may be contributing to this. Many dangerous goods are discovered as a result of x-ray screening for reasons of security (i.e it is not being done to detect dangerous goods per se), which is why it is so important that air cargo staff, including those responsible for security, are appropriately trained so they can recognise dangerous goods when they come across them. Apart from x-ray (which cannot detect all types of dangerous goods) or when dangerous goods become apparent in an incident, vigilance of cargo staff is really the only other way of detecting undeclared dangerous goods.”