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RAF sergeant’s deadly cancer caused by toxic fumes, family claims

The Times has reported on the death of RAF sergeant Anna Irwin, who died from lung cancer at the age of 38. Irwin’s family attributes her illness to prolonged exposure to toxic fumes while serving onboard Chinook helicopters during her eight three-month tours in Afghanistan.

Mick Irwin, Anna’s father, commented, “She was a fighter, she wouldn’t give up, you know. She wanted to live and she fought all the way through. It was terrible to see someone suffering a death like that.” His remarks highlight the family’s belief that her illness was linked to her military service.

The Times’ report draws attention to a broader issue affecting military personnel. It reveals that dozens of former pilots and aircrew are suing the Ministry of Defence (MoD) after developing various cancers, allegedly due to exposure to exhaust fumes from British military helicopters. This issue raises important questions about the long-term health risks faced by military personnel.

Testimonies from affected personnel and their families suggest that the MoD was aware of the potential risks for over a decade but did not take sufficient action. Troops who flew in Sea King, Wessex, Puma, and Chinook helicopters have been diagnosed with cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, throat cancer, and testicular cancer. Since the story’s publication, more than 100 individuals have contacted lawyers regarding similar health concerns, adding to the nearly 50 claimants already pursuing legal action against the MoD.

Despite the seriousness of these claims, Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Knighton and Admiral Sir Tony Radakin have stated they are not fully informed about the details and have not seen definitive evidence linking helicopter service to cancer. Knighton remarked, “I know nothing about the detail so it would be entirely wrong of me to comment on that.” Radakin added, “We will continue to look at any of the cases that come forward, but the evidence we have seen so far has not drawn definitive connections between helicopter service and cancer.”

The MoD has settled five cases out of court, including those of Zach Stubbings, a former flight sergeant and helicopter winchman, and other personnel who served on Sea King helicopters. During an appeals tribunal, it was acknowledged that a former Wessex pilot’s cancer could be attributed to exposure to exhaust fumes during his RAF service. Legal documents uncovered during these proceedings reveal that the government knew about the dangers of the Sea King’s exhaust as far back as 1999 but did not implement safety precautions.

Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, commented on the issue, saying, “This is yet another concern of British military approaches to the well-being of its troops. The fact that the Ministry of Defence knew about the risks and failed to act is a grievous oversight. It raises serious questions about the commitment to the health and safety of our service members, who sacrifice so much for their country. We need a thorough investigation to ensure such negligence is never repeated.”

Mick Irwin has called for an inquiry into the MoD’s actions, questioning why more preventative measures were not taken: “Why did my daughter have to go through what she went through? It could have all been avoided if they had taken action. As far as I can see, this is still happening and no one is doing anything about it.” Anna was diagnosed with primary enteric adenocarcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer, in 2016. Her case puzzled doctors as she was a non-smoker with no obvious environmental causes. She passed away in November 2017, after raising £70,000 for charity through various fundraising activities.

The Ministry of Defence responded to the allegations, stating, “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.”

As the legal battle continues, Anna Irwin’s story underscores the potential health risks faced by military personnel and the need for greater protection and accountability within the armed forces. Her family, along with many others, seeks justice and answers to prevent future health issues among those who serve.