Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aerotoxic syndrome: the latest developments

Back in February 2008, in Weekend Wings #7, I examined the topic of aerotoxic syndrome. At the time, I wrote:

. . . 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.

The topic has been of growing concern to a great many people, as outlined in the earlier article.

Now, seemingly out of the blue, BAe Systems has teamed with Quest International to produce a system to purify cabin air.

UK-based Quest International and BAE Systems have jointly launched a revolutionary cabin air treatment system that promises both to sterilise recirculated onboard air and eliminate toxins from pressurised engine bleed air supplied to the cabin. It has been certificated by the European Aviation Safety Agency for use on the British Aerospace 146 and Avro RJ regional jet series, and has been given a supplemental type certificate for use on Boeing 757s.

Marketed as AirManager, the system is easily retrofittable to all commercial aircraft types, according to Quest founder David Hallam, but it has been trialled first on the 146/Avro RJ series and the 757, the two types known to have experienced the highest incidence of reported cabin air contamination by toxic organophosphates in pyrolised engine oil fumes.

. . .

Hallam says that the air treatment system was originally developed to purge nursing homes of smells, bacteria and viruses, and it is now becoming extensively used at medical establishments. The partnership with BAE was set up, he says, because the potential for the system in commercial air transport was clear, and he needed to work with an aerospace partner to test it in the aviation environment.

There's more at the link.

The timing seems suspiciously appropriate. As David Learmount of Flight Global points out:

BAE Systems, in partnership with Quest International, look as if they have come up with a brilliant solution to a real problem - contaminated cabin air.

But if you had asked BAE the day before the 15 September press conference that launched this new system (called AirManager) whether contaminated cabin air was a problem, they would have said it was not - or at least not one of any significance.

When I asked - at the press conference - why BAE had produced a solution for a problem that does not exist, the response was accurate and well-rehearsed.

Not the whole truth, maybe, but true. The new system, says BAE, will improve the quality of cabin air, and offering "improvement" is a sufficient incentive for installing this equipment. They have a "duty of care", the company said. How strange that, in previous discussion of this subject, that expression was not evoked.

. . .

BAE and the UK Government have told us that events involving oil-based organosphosphate fumes/mists getting into cabin air have been incredibly rare, and when they happen it is not at harmful levels.

I was informed at the press conference that it is more or less a coincidence that the first two aircraft types that have been fitted with this clever invention are the two that have suffered "fume events" more commonly than any others: the BAE Systems 146/Avro RJ series and the Boeing 757.

Maybe we should just be grateful that, finally, it looks as if a viable solution to contaminated cabin air has been found?

No, not good enough. The rights of crew and passengers whose health has already been ruined by neurotoxin fume events have to be properly recognised. The same treatment should apply to those whose health has yet to be damaged by flying in aircraft that suffer unfortunate fume events while their aircraft is awaiting fitment of AirManager (or any other worthy competitor that emerges).

Within a month or two of today, Professor Clement Furlong of the University of Washington, Seattle, will have identified the biomarkers that scientifically link sickness in passengers and crew to aircraft fume events. Then the industry's lawyers will no longer be able to rely on legal technicalities to avoid facing reality.

At least the launch of AirManager is a sign that reality is beginning to be faced in a practical and beneficial way.

Again, there's more at the link.

I'm glad to see that such a system is now available: but I hope that something will be done for the thousands who've allegedly been affected by a problem that the authorities, aircraft manufacturers and major airlines appear to have ignored for a very long time. I suspect the legal fight is far from over.


1 comment:

On a Wing and a Whim said...

It's not strange at all that they are avoiding accepting blame - it's a given that they are trying to improve the situation and fix any potential problem, real or not, minor or major, without opening themselves up to every ambulance-chaser out for a 'free' buck.

Unfortunately, many lawyers and the FAA both have the same mindset: if you make a safety improvement, you're not trying to improve your product, they say, you're admitting that your prior product was unsafe. This has three side effects - the first is that there's no incentive to work on creating safety improvements unless and until people die. The second is that there is an active disincentive for commercial users to install said improvements, as it opens them up to the liability for not having them prior.

The third is that, when somebody does actually come up with a safety improvement and somebody wants to install it, getting it through all the hoops and regulations, then marketing it to a very small market, and setting aside money for the inevitable legal battles, makes it awful expensive.

For an example of the last: my airplane is from 1941, well before most cars had seat belts, much less aircraft. If I want to install inertial reel harnesses - like modern cars have - it'll cost roughly $1700 for both seats. That's as a private owner, not even subject to getting sued by passengers for not having them in before!