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Aerotoxic Syndrome: Current Research and Political Status




Aircfrat in flightAs more and more people are flying, including pilots, cabin crew and passengers, aerotoxic syndrome is becoming a major health issue. Christine Standing of gives an overview of aerotoxic syndrome and an update on current research and political and legal wranglings.

Summary of Aerotoxic Safety Risks

by Christine Standing MA

In 1955, there was a heated debate about the potential faults that were being introduced into aircraft air conditioning technology. The industry has had decades to correct this problem. During this time it dealt with the ensuing safety deficit by the use of denial. Now, the problem has resurfaced and it is the medical fraternity who are discovering the extent of the problem.  Pilots, flight attendants and passengers are experiencing neurotoxic symptoms. The clue to discovering the reason for these lies in the fact that pilots are becoming incapacitated in-flight; some experience moments of black-out others are paralyzed; others have transitory neurological symptoms and find it difficult to land their aircraft safely.  Responsible, fit and healthy young pilots have to be stretchered off aircraft and hospitalised. Others find that their illness progresses incrementally with each successive flight.  Many have life-long illnesses as a result of this policy.  In 1999, this condition was termed Aerotoxic Syndrome.

The British Government has dealt with this problem by issuing a report that concurs with a government-funded study.  This same  administrative mechanism was criticised roundly by Justice Mahon when ‘the hallowed halls of Westminster’ issued equally erroneous and dangerous statements following the Mt. Erebus disaster  in 1979.  The risk to flight safety is obvious.  When Governments have input into the aviation safety system for political reasons  and without a view to safety, potential errors stay in situ and the risks to crew and passengers continue.  The political protection of the tobacco industry was deemed unacceptable when people had to inhale others’ smoke and developed cancer; how much is this the case?

The heart of the problem lies with the interface between heated synthetic jet-engine oils and air that is ducted off the engine into the cabin.  This is done without filtering off the toxic cocktail of fumes, which contain the residue of tricresyl phosphate and other organophosphates that are related to nerve toxins that are used in chemical warfare.  Where the industry tries to cover up the dangers inherent in this practice, we only have to use the reasoning of Occam’s Razor - the simplest explanation is probably the correct one - put a neurotoxin in aircraft; people on board start getting neurotoxic illness.  The two are related.

The safety risks are twofold - that of acute pilot incapacitation, with its commensurate risk to the total aircraft; and the long-term health effects to crew and passengers alike. We must not forget that passengers are not told of the risks to their health.  Pregnant women, nursing mothers and their infants, and those with toddlers ought to be told when their health is at such devastating risk.  We owe such honesty to these, to the elderly and the infirm, as well as the employees on board aircraft.

Currently there are legal actions, some successful and some pending, regarding harm done to persons through the illegal release of airborne toxins into the confined space of aircraft cabins.  The German Government has has instigated investigations  into an Air Berlin flight that showed signs of oil leakage around 8-9 April this year.  The choices for the traveling public are now becoming obvious - choose the airlines where the governments of the country take Aerotoxic Syndrome seriously.

The UK Health and Safety Executive no longer provides the information link:  Medical aspects of work-related exposures to organophosphates (Guidance Note MS17)  They refer enquiries to

NOTE:  The author acknowledges Michaelis (2010) Health and Flight Implications From Exposure to Contaminated Air in Aircraft. Doctoral Thesis. University of New South Wales.  If anyone objects to the facts as stated in this sum-mary, 'Aerotoxic Safety Risks', please acquaint yourself with that study prior to raising objections.  Any inadvertent mistakes are my own.  References and information can be viewed on Hyperlinks on


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