BBC man dies years after inhaling mustard gas during Iran-Iraq war

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The Independent Online

A BBC sound recordist has died from inhaling mustard gas in the 1980s while investigating the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.

Cyril Benford, 78, died almost 27 years after travelling to the border between the two countries for Newsnight in 1984, an inquest heard. In a statement written by Mr Benford before he died on 16 January, he said an Iranian guard opened a shell releasing mustard gas as he was recording.

He was on the border with three BBC colleagues and toxicologist Aubin Heyndrickx, who was investigating the potential use of chemical weapons for the UN. He said he also travelled next to an Iranian guard who was carrying a jar containing mustard gas on a flight lasting two to three hours. The jar was covered only with cotton wool.

The effects of mustard gas can take between 20 and 40 years to prove fatal, the inquest held at Wycombe Law Courts in Buckinghamshire heard. Mr Benford, known as Roy, from High Wycombe, worked as a sound recordist and cameraman for 38 years, and was sent to Iran during the war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

William Feganearl, home office pathologist, said Mr Benford had heart disease and a form of leukaemia but these did not cause his death. There was scarring to his lungs, but no sign of asbestos which can cause this. A doctor specialising in lung disease said he had experienced a decline in his health, was breathless and unable to exercise. An RAF physician confirmed the changes in Mr Benford's lungs were consistent with mustard agent inhalation.

Pathologist Mr Feganearl said Mr Benford had died from respiratory failure from scarring of the lungs, with heart disease being a contributory factor. "The inhalation of the mustard gas has set up a reaction in the lungs and has resulted in breathing problems and the scarring in the lungs," he said.

Mr Benford's wife, Anne, said her husband's health had declined rapidly during the last few years of his life.

Coroner Richard Hulett recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease, as he said it was contracted while Mr Benford was at work. He said: "The incidents of mustard gas deaths in Buckinghamshire up to this point is nil. But asbestos we see a great deal." He said a time lapse of up to 40 years from when people are first exposed to asbestos to when they become ill is common. "Although this is a different and exotic workplace, nevertheless, a work place it is," he said.

Mr Benford's daughter Susan said after the verdict: "I am delighted. The facts just speak for themselves. That is what we needed. That is what we have known for many years."