A former commercial pilot is leading the investigation into the effects that toxic cabin air onboard passenger jets can have on the health of passengers and crew.
Former British Airways pilot, Tristan Loranie, who flew commercial airliners with the company for 19 years is warning that cabin air contains toxic chemicals which can incapacitate the crew, putting the lives of all on board in jeopardy.
Loranie has just completed six years of personal research into the quality of aircraft cabin air and the effects that poisonous chemicals it contains can have on those on board. He says that pilots could effectively become incapable of flying the aircraft due to these chemicals. In an article he wrote for the Daily Mail in the UK he said "Even more worrying is that, just like an over-confident drunk driver at the wheel of a car, they would have no idea they were doing anything wrong.
The situation Loranie is describing has come to be known as 'aerotoxic syndrome'.
The problem stems from cabin ventilation systems in aircraft that have not been updated with regards to safety for more than 50 years. Most airline passengers will be alarmed to discover that while half of the air in the cabin is recirculated, the other half is drawn directly through the heart of the aircraft's jet engines. This is what is known as 'bleed air'.
Extraordinarily this bleed air is not subject to any filtering at all, it is simply cooled and pumped directly into the cabin with all the chemical contaminants it may have picked up on its passage through the engines.
Loranie says that airline industry leaders keep the level of toxicity a closely guarded secret and explained that "it is now generally accepted except by the airlines, the aircraft manufacturers and the British government that vaporized jet oil contains neuro-toxic, immuno-toxic, and potentially carcinogenic organophosphates that are related both to the deadly nerve gas sarin, and to the chemicals found in anti-malaria and anti-nerve drugs implicated as causing Gulf War Syndrome when given to troops in the first Gulf War."
As awareness of aerotoxic syndrome grows, many commentators are comparing the current situation to that of tobacco a few decades ago when the industry knew of harmful health effects but steadfastly refused to admit it.
His interest in aerotoxic syndrome began in 2001 when he was the union representative for the British Airline Pilot's Association. He says: "One Sunday night I took a phone call from a pilot who said he was regularly being poisoned by chemicals in the cockpit air supply, that flight safety was being seriously threatened and that the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers were engaged in a massive coverup."
Curious about this pilot's claims he began not only checking health statistics for pilots but also keeping an eye out for any symptoms he himself might experience while at the controls of the airliners he flew.
Symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome reportedly range from dizziness, disorientation, confusion, and light-headedness to respiratory and heart problems.
Loranie realised that he himself was suffering from many of these symptoms and reports that on one flight both he and his co-pilot landed their aircraft wearing emergency oxygen masks because fumes in the cockpit had left them feeling as if they had been "hit by a baseball bat".
He says that they were able to land the plane safely but that later that day he was still suffering from symptoms of neurotoxicity such as disorientation and confusion adding that "a couple of hours later I couldn't find the key to start my car," finally realising it was still in the car door.
Loranie eventually had his medical certificate revoked by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) due to chronic symptoms including numbness in his fingers and feet, nausea and heart palpitations. He says that doctors confirmed that these were the result of exposure to toxic fumes.
Loranie is far from the only person to be making a stand on this issue. The Aerotoxic Association was formed by other concerned pilots and cabin crew who experienced the effects of toxic cabin air. This global organization is dedicated to raising awareness of aerotoxic syndrome and and fighting for its recognition as a distinct medical condition so that victims, whether aircrew or passengers, can get the treatment and support they require.
Meanwhile the University of New South Wales in Australia is a running a research project to investigate the effects that exposure to fuel and hydraulic fluid vapour can have on pilots health and ability to function. The research is also looking specifically at the toxicity of jet fuels and assessing jet fuel leaks.
For more information on aerotoxic syndrome please visit the Aerotoxic Association web site