The reality of so-called "aerotoxic syndrome" has been debated for years. The airline industry, aircraft manufacturers and regulatory authorities appear to have avoided the issue, uttered pious platitudes or flat-out denied its existence for many years. However, the weight of evidence has grown so strong that it's now a major issue. I'd like to devote this "Weekend Wings" to the issue.
If you or your loved ones spend much time aboard jet airliners, this is a critically important subject that you should be following.
Until the 1960's most airliners took their cabin air directly from the outside atmosphere, compressed it, heated it and circulated it. However, with the advent of higher-pressure engines it became more economical to divert so-called "bleed air" from them (already heated by compression), cool it and send it into the cabin. Initially about half the air was drawn from this source with the rest coming from outside air: but before long it became the norm to filter and recirculate cabin air rather than draw it in from outside, again for economy reasons. Today most airliners appear to draw about half their cabin air from engine "bleed air" and the balance from recirculated air. Boeing has a page on its Web site describing the process.
This works fine . . . as long as the air isn't polluted. Tragically, it appears that engine oil compounds and byproducts are increasingly implicated as pollutants in engine "bleed air", to the point where they are major contributors to health risks. These threaten not only flight safety, but also the long-term health of those exposed to them.
Australia seems to be taking a leading role in highlighting and exposing the problem. According to a recent report:
Australian pilots are demanding a royal commission after research revealed the harmful genetic impact of breathing in toxic fumes on aircraft.
There are fears for the long-term health of passengers who may have been exposed to the chemical-laced fumes on commercial flights without knowing it.
Because of a design flaw in modern jet aircraft, unfiltered air is pumped directly from the engines into the cabin. If there is an oil leak, the air becomes laced with chemicals including tricresyl phosphate (TCP), which attacks the nervous system and can cause brain damage.
. . .
Professor Clement Furlong, from the University of Washington in Seattle, said results from blood and gene tests had shown that exposure to TCP adversely affected a person's genes.
The issue is being raised in many other countries. Recently the Daily Mail in England carried an alarming story about the problem. The author (a pilot who claims he was disabled by engine oil fumes) points out that:
. . . it is now generally accepted . . . that vaporised 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.
The problem is common in the USA as well. There have been numerous lawsuits by cabin staff alleging that their health problems were caused by cabin air pollution from engine oil byproducts. In 2001 Alaska Airlines settled a class action lawsuit out of court dealing with the issue. As recently as November last year the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) reported that five US Airways cabin staff were sickened on a flight from New York to Boston. There are many more examples that I won't cite due to space limitations.
In response to all this evidence there are increasing demands for the airline industry, manufacturers and regulators to improve standards. The AFA has called for the improvement of air quality aboard aircraft, and the American Lung Association of California has called for the establishment of indoor air quality standards for airlines. Pressure groups have been established to represent airline staff and passengers, including GCAQE, the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, the Aerotoxic Association and AOPIS, the Aviation Organophosphate Information Site. These groups are providing a valuable service by bringing together all relevant information and making it available to interested persons and parties. In particular, the last-named has links to literally hundreds of reports, articles and developments in the field.
To understand the problem in greater detail, I highly recommend two movies available on the Internet. The first, by AOPIS, may be found here. It seems to cut off after about ten minutes, but those ten minutes are very important! The second, a 22-minute in-depth news report by an Australian television station, may be found here. As you watch pilots, flight attendants, passengers, doctors and scientists discuss the issue you'll get a much better idea of its scope and importance.
I can't stress too strongly that if you or your loved ones are exposed to this danger, you should view both of these movies. They are vital to a proper understanding of the problem.
The authoritative journal Flight International recently compared the situation to that facing the tobacco industry in the 1970's:
At present the commercial air transport industry - including the manufacturers - are where the tobacco industry was in the 1970s and 1980s when it was officially denying that its products were a major cause of lung cancer while it was - simultaneously - frantically planning its own damage-limitation strategies.
We're not talking anything remotely on the same scale here, but the problem itself - a serious health issue - and the stage that research into it has reached, makes a close parallel with the tobacco industry's predicament at that time. What is vastly different is that if you want to go on flying healthily, you could be completely protected from this threat, but only once the industry admits it exists.
Perhaps it'll take massive lawsuits such as those that erupted over the risks of smoking to finally get the airlines and manufacturers to improve the situation.
Even more worrying is that cabin air pollutants aren't the only risk to health. According to a report in the authoritative periodical Airline Business:
Air cabin quality is only one of a number of airline health issues. In November the Washington-based Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP) joined forces with Unite, a union representing airline laundry workers, to demand improvements in onboard hygiene and cleanliness. This followed a survey of union members at Royal Laundries, which services 150 airlines in the USA, who claimed they were instructed to repackage used airline blankets and headphones without cleaning them. At the same time, laboratory tests at Superior Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio, on blankets "obtained from several of the largest airlines in the world" revealed the presence of pathogens including Pseudomonas paucimobilis. This has been known to cause infections in the lungs and eyes as well as cause contamination of the blood system, says Unite.
These findings, the two organisations say, back earlier research by a number of US television stations. In 1997, WBNS-TV of Columbus, Ohio, revealed that 78% of surfaces, including blankets, pillow cases, tray tables and head rests, were contaminated with disease-causing microbes.
The study, conducted with the help of Superior Laboratories, covered all 10 major carriers serving Port Columbus International Airport and dozens of flights within the USA and to Canada. Regardless of the airline, or the cabin class, all items were "just as unclean" and had been "rarely, if ever cleaned or disinfected". Among the pathogens WBNS detected was Escherichia coli, which is potentially lethal.
Labelling the airlines "germlines", the ACAP and Unite have called on the US DoT inspector general to investigate "charges of grossly unsanitary conditions on airliners" and an end to airline exemption from "enforceable sanitary codes".
Having failed to obtain any action from the DoT, which argues that this matter is out of its remit, Unite is now issuing passengers with their own test tubes, swabs and an address of a testing laboratory. "Passengers can now see how dirty aircraft are for themselves," says a spokesman.
I hope you'll take the time to follow up on this issue, read the articles linked above, and become part of the growing movement to solve this problem before any more people are sickened, injured or even killed by it. I think it's very important indeed.