Aviation’s Poisoned Air: Aerotoxic Syndrome

I have never been a great airplane passenger. I prefer to be on the ground. Now that I have learned about Aerotoxic Syndrome, a heath issue not in the public domain, I have a new concern.

In a pattern strongly reminiscent of how “Big Tobacco” and “Big Oil” have used their power and influence to keep a story under the radar, the problems with the air breathed onboard airplanes is still not well-known. This is despite a 2013 broadcast feature on 60 Minutes called, “The Airline Industry’s Darkest Secret.”

There have been plenty of calls to action by those directly impacted on a daily basis — flight attendants and pilots. They are the most gravely affected by the exposure to toxic chemicals in confined spaces.

The average air traveler remains clueless.

Judith Anderson, an Industrial Hygienist with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, laid out the basic issues for me. The scariest piece of the whole equation is that the toxins being ingested by pilots can result in “cognitive deficits,” thereby putting the safety of the whole plane in jeopardy.

Explained in the simplest way, cabin air originates from outside air. At high elevations, the air needs to be compressed and heated, and this is accomplished by a design that has the air going through the wing engines. The only plane not using this procedure is the Boeing 787.

As Anderson underscored, “Cabin air has a particular smell. It’s called ‘bleed air’ because it is bled off the engine.” The bottom line is that there is no filtering control measures in place, so passengers and crew are breathing “unfiltered engine air.”

“Pilots are breathing bleed air, and pilot error can come from exposure to oil fumes and carbon monoxide in their air,” Anderson explained. I asked Anderson what steps the FAA was taking to rectify the situation. “This issue was recognized by the FAA as a flight safety concern back in 2004,” she replied. In December 2003, Congress ordered the FAA to fund research into the problem. They did, but neglected to act on any of the report’s recommendations. Anderson said, “In February 2012, Congress again ordered the FAA to fund research.” Yet, Anderson maintains that the FAA “barely touched the Congressionally-mandated research into filter and sensor options,” asserting it didn’t have funds to research the health impact. “In effect, the FAA justified its inaction by claiming to have only received 18 oil fume reports from airlines over ten years, even though this is patently untrue,” Anderson noted.

Without the FAA demanding that the airline industry clean up its act, Anderson said, “The airlines are not motivated to install filters.” She added, “Since the FAA has no effective regulations in place, the industry is turning a blind eye to the problem.”

As usual, it comes down to money and the profit factor. Planes are being constructed based on design technology dating back from the 1960s. The FAA maintains that it is aware of one “fume event” daily. Yet these incidents are grossly underreported. Anderson referenced the aviation industry’s strategy as, “Delaying, delaying, delaying.”

Details from an abstract Anderson sent me described, “The potential for heated engine oil and hydraulic fluid to contaminate the aircraft air supply due to maintenance, operation, and design failures or deficiencies is an ongoing problem that has been documented in the aviation industry since the introduction of the ‘bleed air’ air supply system in the 1950s.”

When private tests were conducted by news media outlets, including 60 Minutes and CNN, swabs were taken of aircraft cabin surfaces and the ventilation systems. What was found was “residue of engine oil,” TCP, and other neurotoxins that come from heated oil fumes.

Since airlines do not self-monitor and the FAA has been negligent, contaminated air goes unreported. Passengers remain unaware of what they are potentially being exposed to.

“Aviation’s biggest cover-up” is how former British Airways Captain turned filmmaker, Tristan Loraine, labeled the situation. “I have been doing this [speaking out] for 15 years because I think it’s a breech of human rights and an ongoing health and flight safety issue that must be resolved.” Loraine is representative of the point of view of his fellow pilots — many who can no longer fly due to health issues.

Loraine has made three documentaries on the topic, and has another, Aerotoxic, in development. He sent me articles and links from the British media to drive home his point.

Anderson was crystal clear on her bottom line. She said, “There should be rules in place to make sure that aircraft are designed so that passengers and crew don’t risk breathing toxic oil fumes when they fly on aircraft. That’s just common sense, but it’s not happening.”

This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force

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