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Aircraft Cabin Air Called into Question





MCS America

Lourdes Salvador's Column

...Co-founder of MCS America discusses the latest Multiple Chemical Sensitivity issues.









Lourdes Salvador is the founder of MCS America, a science writer, and a social advocate for the greater awareness of environmental contamination, human toxicology, and propagation of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) as a disorder of organic biological origin induced by toxic environmental insults.

For more information visit MCS America




Monday, December 12th, 2011:


Aircraft Cabin Air Called into QuestionAircraft Cabin Air Called into Question

by Lourdes Salvador



Flying in commercial jets is relatively safe; some say it’s safer than driving. Studies show the air in the cabin may be another story.


Bleed air has been found to enter some airline cabins through the air conditioning system after passing through the jet engine, hydraulic oil, and then into the cabin to be cooled as cabin air for the crew and passengers. Bleed air may contain toxic fumes which lead to health problems increasingly reported by flight attendants.


Concentrations of neurotoxic chemicals, including organophosphate pesticides, have been found in cabin air under normal flying conditions by the Institute of Environmental Health commission by the UK Department of Transport.


Hydraulic fluid leaks can lead to toxic air from the engine being released in the cabin through the air and may be the cause of sudden fatigue, headaches, coughing, flu symptoms and light headedness. Long-term symptoms of exposure to these toxic compounds may include neurological damage that affects vision and memory and/or produces shaking, fatigue, and/or pain. Some specialists now refer to this as “aerotoxic syndrome”.


According to a 2008 article in the Telegraph “Is cabin air making us sick?", “More and more pilots are reporting that air polluted by engine fumes is making them ill and even incapable of handling their aircraft.”


Captain Neils Gomer reported, "It was during the descent that my first officer told me he was feeling really bad and very close to vomiting. He went on to oxygen. I felt confused and five seconds later I, too, was close to vomiting. I just managed to put on my mask, after which I could hardly move. We were sitting there flying at 600 miles an hour, late at night, both of us more or less incapacitated. I could not even raise my hand; I could not talk; it was like I was paralyzed.”


Passengers on Captain Gomer’s flight were affected as well. Many were unable to be roused.


“Three Alaska Airlines managers conducted an extraordinary experiment on an MD-80 jet in 1996. Frustrated by complaints about noxious mists on MD-80 flights, the managers tried to recreate the problem on a jet parked inside a hangar. John Fowler, then chief of maintenance, ordered a mechanic to squirt 8 ounces of hydraulic fluid into a scooplike "air inlet" on the jet's underbelly, where it was sucked in by a small engine pumping fresh air into the passenger cabin,” a 2002 USA Today article reports, " In a few minutes, the managers noticed a waviness in the air inside the cabin that looked like automobile exhaust or a heat wave. "I recall a metallic taste in my mouth, some burning around the eyes and sensitivity in my nose," Fowler would say later.”


In another incident, flight attendants sued Alaska airlines and won a $725,000 out-of-court settlement and went on to sue two of the nation's biggest companies: Boeing and Honeywell, accused of knowing about design flaws which made it easy for leaking chemical fluids to get sucked into the aircraft cabin.


The claims were disputed and the companies claimed there was not enough chemical getting sucked into the cabin to cause a problem. USA Today uncovered over 1,000 reports of fumes, smoke, haze, mist and odors entering the cabin air supply on two models of planes.


Technologies to help filter the air entering cabins would cost millions to install and some say the reason it has not been done is because it would call attention to the fact that there is a hazard.


“Government departments in the UK and USA seem to be on the verge of making a U-turn on whether heated oil fumes in aircraft cabin air can severely damage crew and passenger health. Having previously denied it, now they seem to be preparing to admit the possibility.” Reported Flightglobal in 2010, “But although government agencies now admit that neurotoxins - for example isomers of tri-cresyl phosphate - are present in these fumes, they claim their quantities pose no threat to health. But they admit they do not know in what concentration or form (vapor or droplets) the chemicals are present.”


Pilots and flight attendants who have reported symptoms have frequently been dismissed with vague claims that there is no proof the symptoms are work related.


In 2011, Boeing settled a lawsuit with a former American Airlines flight attendant over the toxicity of cabin air after it became clear they knew of the problem with fume events, yet continued to maintain there was no risk.


This year MSN reports:


But 250,000 pages of company documents turned over to the plaintiff's legal team by Boeing seem certain to fuel the long-running battle over the safety of cabin air in commercial jetliners.”


On at least one U.S.-registered commercial jetliner a day — out of approximately 28,000 flights — pilots, flight attendants and passengers are exposed to toxic smoke or fumes entering the plane's air conditioning system, say industry officials. And the documented incidents of contaminated air, which can contain tricresyl phosphates (TCPs), carbon monoxide and other toxic components, may not cover all the exposures.


Boeing and the airline industry have long maintained that cabin air — compressed air pumped, or "bled," from the plane's engine — is safe, saying such breaches are extremely rare and that short-term exposure to the tiny amounts of toxic substances in the cabin air poses no health risk.


Boeing, acknowledging the settlement with Williams, said it "still contends that cabin air is safe to breathe and studies by independent researchers have consistently shown that existing systems for providing cabin air to passengers and crew meet applicable health and safety standards."


But stricken airline crews and their advocates say faulty "bleed-air" systems have been causing health problems dating back to the takeoff of jet travel in the 1950s. In severe cases, they say, exposure to the toxic fumes has cost afflicted pilots their jobs when they lost medical clearances and kept flight attendants from working. Moreover, passengers are not informed what they may have breathed and can be endangered if pilots experience aerotoxicity symptoms such as drowsiness, disorientation and memory loss as a result of exposure, the advocates say.”


Aircraft makers say they should not be liable when their product meets safety standards, yet clearly those standards may be grossly insufficient. An example of a submitted exhibit can be found at:


One of the larger ethical concerns is that passengers are not notified of any potential danger to them. Millions of people fly each year and may be at risk of illness or permanent injury. Kelly Skyles, coordinator for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, says, "Crews are locked up with passengers in a working environment. Anything we're at risk of, they're at risk of."


Until this issue is ironed out legally, passengers should consider taking the time to gather information, ask which model plane they will be traveling on, be aware of anything unusual, and take precautions. Wearing a mask or respirator in flight may be helpful, though it may require medical documentation so as not to alarm flight crew. Check with airlines in advance.




For more articles on this topic, see: MCSA News.


Copyrighted 2011 Lourdes Salvador & MCS America



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