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An occupational hazard – the transport of dangerous items

Flight safety can be severely compromised by the carriage of hazardous goods and materials. Artemis Aerospace investigates the rules and regulations around the transport of dangerous items.

We all know the familiar and reassuring safety rituals when embarking on a flight. All liquids over 100ml to be placed in a clear plastic bag. Hand luggage on a tray to pass through the scanner. Shoes off, belts off, watches off. That absurd feeling of worry that you might somehow have unwittingly packed an explosive in your rucksack. Passing through the gate and setting off the buzzer with the metal from your knee replacement . . . and then you’re through and can head for the duty free.

It’s a bit of a palaver, but we willingly oblige because safety on board an aircraft is of paramount importance. There is a lengthy list of hazardous materials and the rules for their transportation are not always the same between different countries or even different airlines, so you will always need to check in advance. It’s important to note the difference between dangerous goods, hazardous substances and prohibited goods. The first two are controlled by separate legislation, although there may be some overlap, and can be freighted with the correct paperwork, but the latter are completely banned and would be removed by customs officials if found in luggage.

There are nine classes of hazardous materials:

Class 1: Explosives

This includes any product which could catch alight or detonate as the result of a chemical reaction. Explosive substances are obviously dangerous because they have the capacity to change status and lose stability quickly, most commonly from a solid into a hot gas. There are six sub-categories of explosives, depending on whether the goods have a status change which could cause, for example, a mass explosion hazard, a projection hazard or a fire hazard, whether the hazard is major or minor. This category obviously includes things such as smoke-generating canisters, plastic explosives and detonators and fuses, but also covers fuel blocks for camping stoves, cigarette lighter fuel and refills, some paints, and even Christmas crackers and party poppers. Party poppers are classed as fireworks and are prohibited. Crackers can be taken onto a British Airways flight providing they are commercially manufactured, in unopened original packaging and packed into checked-in baggage and put in the hold. However, they are completely prohibited on all flights to and from the USA.

Class 2: Gases

This includes compressed gas, liquid gas, refrigerated gas, gases mixed with other vapours and aerosols. They can be corrosive or toxic and are often flammable as well. There are three sub-categories: flammable gases, non-flammable and non-toxic gases, and toxic gases. This includes things like fire extinguishers and scuba diving tanks. Self-inflating safety devices such as lifejackets are permitted but there are additional regulations covering these; they must be checked in, unable to be activated accidentally and limited to compressed gas (IATA Division 2.2 non-flammable, non-toxic gas) for inflation purposes. There are extra rules for US travel and items may be subjected to additional screening.

Class 3: Flammable liquids

A flammable liquid is one which can be easily ignited in air at ambient temperatures, and could therefore catch fire during a flight. Perfumes and nail varnish remover both contain flammable liquids and need to be packed in hand baggage.

Class 4: Flammable solids

These are easily combustible; they’re sub-divided into flammable, spontaneously combustible and dangerous when wet. Sodium batteries are on this list, and, surprisingly, seed cake. It’s a by-product of vegetable oils from oil-bearing seeds or grains and is used in animal feeds and fertilisers. It sounds quite harmless, but with some exceptions, it can gradually heat up until it spontaneously ignites, and there are extensive regulations around its carriage.

Class 5: Oxidising agents and organic peroxides

This class has a high oxygen content and is therefore very reactive with combustible materials. Because of the oxygen, if a fire does start, it’s extremely difficult to put out. Examples of these are bleach products and body repair kits for cars, both of which are prohibited.

Class 6: Toxins and infectious substances

These can cause serious harm or even death if ingested or breathed in. A toxic substance or poison, can kill, whereas infectious substances can spread disease. Clinical and medical products and waste come under this heading, such as infected blood samples, live bacteria or viruses, self-defence sprays and also acids and poisons such as rat poison.

Class 7: Radioactive material

Radioactive emissions cause dangerous ionisation by removing electrons from atoms. They are unstable and inherently dangerous to humans unless used in a controlled environment. Smoke detectors come under this heading.

Class 8: Corrosives

Corrosive substances produce chemical effects which can degrade other materials and cause severe injury to human skin. Batteries are the main issue under this heading, including lithium ion and wet cell. British Airways specifies that in hand baggage, batteries must be kept in the device, only four spares per person are permitted and must be kept in their original packaging, lithium metal batteries must not exceed 2g lithium content and lithium ion batteries must not exceed 100Wh. If checked-in luggage contains batteries they must be in the device, which should be completely switched off, not just put into sleep mode. Lithium metal content must not exceed 0.3g of lithium and lithium ion 2.7Wh.

Class 9: Miscellaneous dangerous goods

This is basically everything which isn’t already covered! It includes knives, scissors and other sharp objects, (including hiking poles with sharp ends which must be checked in), magnetised material, energy-efficient lamps (which must be in their retail packaging), dry ice and airbag modules.

Obviously, there are occasions on which hazardous goods have to be transported by air, such as munitions in time of war or the commercial trade in lithium batteries. The International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Technical Instructions are an internationally agreed group of provisions setting out the requirements for this and require extensive dangerous goods training and verification.

It’s reassuring to know that, even though embarkation checks are always time-consuming and sometimes exasperating, they are in place to ensure the safest possible flight for every passenger and crew member.