Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority has established a specialist committee to examine the quality of the air in aircraft cabins and it's relationship to a number of health concerns.
Known as the Expert Panel on Aircraft Air Quality it will investigate the potential health issues related to the quality of aircraft cabin air. It is being set up by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in conjunction with the Cabin Air Quality Reference Group - an airline, union and industry body.
The Panel will examine expert reports, invite submissions and make sure all groups with an interest in this subject have a chance to present information and viewpoints.
In addition, the Panel will critically review scientific research into cabin air quality and produce a synopsis of current Australian and international knowledge.
The panel is scheduled to meet up to eight times over the next 18 months with a final report being produced by early 2010 in which recommendations will be made on whether further research is required or if other actions may be appropriate.
The quality of the air in aircraft cabins has been a concern for a number of years. Pilots, cabin crew and passengers often complain of symptoms such as dizziness, confusion, light-headedness, disorientation. Less frequently aircraft occupants also report respiratory and heart problems they believe were triggered by poor quality cabin air.
As far back as 1970s these problems were recognised and were labelled as aerotoxic syndrome in a scientific paper by Montgomery et al. Recognition of aerotoxic syndrome has grown since then and more and ore people, particularly pilots and cabin crew, are coming forward to report symptoms experienced while on board aircraft. Support organisations such as the Aerotoxic Association have been founded to help those affected.
Earlier this year in an article in the Daily Mail (London) Tristan Loranie, former British Airways pilot and union representative for the British Airline Pilot's Association, revealed that he had suffered a variety of medical complaints he associated with poor cabin air quality and this had ultimately led to him having his commercial pilot's licence revoked. Loranie says that many other pilots are experiencing symptoms such as confusion and disorientation and are therefore putting the lives of passengers and crew at risk.
Loranie says that the problems arise because half of the air in the cabin is air from outside the aircraft which has been routed directly through the engines before entering the cabin. The air therefore picks up a variety of toxic contaminants from the engines before entering the cabin and being breathed in by those on board.
Loranie asserts 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."
Others are yet to be convinced that the problem is so severe and widespread which is why the Australian expert panel has been established to look at the evidence.
Peter Gibson, Spokesman for CASA, said the panel would look at all the available information on cabin air issues, provide expert advice on the quality of that available, and highlight gaps in current knowledge.
"They will pull it together, make some sense of it and present that back to the reference group, which can then look at it from an aviation perspective and an occupational health and safety perspective," he said.
"It's basically taking that another step forward. It's not saying that there is or there is not a problem, just that more work is needed in terms of getting a handle on what's out there."
Heading the Expert Panel on Aircraft Air Quality will be leading Australian medical figure Dr Michael Bollen. Dr. Bollen has 25 years experience as a medical doctor and has successfully chaired a number committees in the past. These include the Australian Government's Expert Committee on Complementary Medicines in the Australian Health System and a clinical review of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) for the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.
The MCS report is currently being prepared for publication after consultation with patient support groups earlier this year. The latest information from this review can be found here.
Dr. Bollen's knowledge of chemical sensitivities should help him to understand the health problems associated with aircraft cabin air. He will now begin appointing other panel members which will include people with experience and qualifications in occupational and/or public health, epidemiology, immunology, toxicology, chemical risk assessment, aircraft operations and airworthiness. Individuals whose health has been affected by cabin air as well as support groups will also be asked to provide information.
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