In November last year, we posted an article about contaminated aircraft cabin air and the serious health and safety problems caused by “Aerotoxicity”. It outlined the fact that all commercial jets, with the exception of the 787 Dreamliner, rely upon air pulled in through the engines to provide pressurized air to the cabin. During flight, high-temperature compressed air is bled off the engines and, after being cooled, is re-circulated throughout the cabin and flight deck. Pyrolized engine oil or hydraulic fluid may contaminate the air in these compressors. As a result of exposure to this contaminated air, airline workers along with airline passengers, may develop chronic health problems. (Now why do you think they employ a separate cabin air compressor system for the 787, considering it is more expensive?)
The Dailymail recently published news of two top BA pilots dying within days of each other after complaining of long-term health effects of breathing in toxic oil fumes while flying.
In their article they highlighted the following matters:
- Pilots have to put on oxygen masks up to five times a week
- Lawyers hope to prove the existence of ‘aerotoxic syndrome’
- They say the air quality problem will be seen as the ‘new asbestos’
- BA and all other airlines do not install air quality detection systems
- They rely on results of Government commissioned studies
In our Aerotoxicity post we also pointed out that Jet engine oil contains an organophosphate known as tricresyl phosphate (“TCP”), a neurotoxin capable of damaging the central and peripheral nervous system. After exposure to contaminated bleed air passenger and flight crew may suffer from industrial asthma and neurological damage including cognitive problems, memory loss, uncontrollable tremors, numbness and tingling in the extremities, disabling migraines, speech impairment, and vision loss, among other symptoms.
The Dailymail article continued as follows:
Two top BA pilots died within days of each other after complaining about being exposed to toxic oil fumes on passenger planes. Karen Lysakowska, 43, was buried last Tuesday, while the funeral of Richard Westgate, also 43, was held four days before. Both claimed they had been poisoned by the fumes that can contaminate cabin air and which regularly force pilots to wear oxygen masks.
Before he died, Mr Westgate had instructed his lawyers to sue BA for alleged breach of health and safety guidelines. The lawyers want to ‘give him the trial he never got’ by suing the airline in a case they say will be a ‘moment of truth’ for the aviation industry.
They say they are on the cusp of proving in court the existence of ‘aerotoxic syndrome’, a chronic physical and neurological condition they insist will one day be seen as ‘the new asbestos’.
Thousands of pilots are currently ‘unfit to fly’, one specialist doctor believes.
Official records from the Civil Aviation Authority show that pilots and crew have to put on their oxygen masks at least five times a week to combat suspected ‘fume events’.
Ms Lysakowska, one of the most talented pilots of her generation, had begged bosses at BA to address the issue after she was grounded with ill health in 2005, according to the Sunday Express.
In a letter to them in 2006, she wrote: ‘My objective is to get well and carry on flying and not enter a protracted legal battle because of the impact exposure to contaminated air has had on my life but if I have to I will.’
She later developed cancer however, and did not go ahead with suing BA.
Mr Westgate, a world record-breaking paraglider as well as a commercial pilot, voluntarily grounded himself in 2011 after suffering whiplash in a car crash.
Aviation medic Dr Michel Mulder said he had by then become concerned about his health and memory, suffering persistent headaches, chronic fatigue, loss of confidence and mood swings.
Dr Mulder, who himself flew for KLM and suffered similar symptoms, said Mr Westgate did not tell his employer because he feared losing his job.
He sought private medical advice to avoid any blemishes on his health record.
Mr Westgate, who was not married and had no children, died on December 12 in Amsterdam, where he had been having treatment.
He had been there since last April after diverting to the Dutch city while on his way to Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas, having given up all hope of finding a cure.
Frank Cannon, a pilot and one of Mr Westgate’s lawyers, said BA is liable under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations because it fails to monitor the quality of air on board planes.
Despite calls from pilots and the Aerotoxic Association, BA and all other airlines do not install air quality detection systems.
Instead, they rely on the results of Government commissioned studies, the most recent of which by Cranfield University, Buckinghamshire, concluded in 2011 that cabin air was safe.
Mr Cannon is now trying to force a groundbreaking British inquest into Richard’s death in which BA would be asked questions about aerotoxic syndrome.
He said: ‘I see this as an impending tsunami for the airline industry — it’s been hushed for and ignored for so long. We hope to use the inquest to give Richard the trial he never got. It would be the first judicial recognition of his condition.’
A spokesman for BA said: ‘Our thoughts are with the families of the two pilots at this very sad time and we offer our sincere condolences.
‘We are not aware of any legal claims relating to the two individuals.
‘It would be inappropriate for us to comment or speculate upon the individuals’ cause of death.’
The empty, disingenuous, scripted statements from the Airline aside, this is extremely worrying news for passengers, particularly frequent flyers, and shocking news for the pilots. Toxic cabin air not only compromises the health of cabin crew and passengers, it also compromises flight safety. Pilots have described feeling groggy, or “out of it” or even paralysis when breathing air laden with jet oil fumes. What the Civil Aviation Authority blandly calls “Fume Events” are dangerous. It perhaps raises questions about aircraft accident findings of “Pilot Error”, and the possibility that that they may have been triggered by “Aerotoxic Fume Events”.
The UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) accepts that fume events occur on 1 flight in 100 in its 2007 report. However, on some aircraft types crews report that they experience fumes to some degree on every flight and as the definition of “fume event” is not agreed upon, it makes it impossible to give a true figure.
Background levels of contamination may not be detectable by smell, and there are no chemical sensors in modern jet aircraft. All jet aircraft including turboprops are susceptible to fume events. Some aircraft have a worse history with the worst offenders being the BAe 146, Boeing 757 and Airbus 319.
In today’s existing modern bleed air aircraft, the quality of cabin air could be improved, and the risk of contamination by engine oil reduced, with these solutions:
- The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the obvious answer as it eliminates the possibility of cabin air contamination. Instead of bleed air, cabin air is supplied by electrically-driven compressors taking their air directly from the atmosphere. However, as most of them have recently been grounded over other safety issues this may not be a solution until they are cleared.
- As bleed air is not presently filtered, installation of bleed air filtration systems could eliminate the problem, although a technically efficient system does not yet seem to have been developed.
- A less toxic oil formulation could lead to significant improvement. The French oil company NYCO is continuously developing such oils.
- Chemical sensors to detect contaminated air in the bleed air supplies – instead of human noses – would alert pilots to problems, allowing prompt preventive action.
As of 21st September 2012 there were 31 pilots currently on the CAA Medical Department’s database who have ‘suggested an association between illnesses and the cabin environment’
Air Travel Can Damage Your Health.