Is toxic air on planes making you ill?
A building body of research indicates that frequent flyers and cabin crew, who are regularly exposed to cabin air, are at risk of developing aerotoxic syndrome. Aerotoxic syndrome is caused by organophosphate poisoning as a result of exposure to toxic cabin air. Organophosphates are forbidden in consumer products. Aerotoxic syndrome includes a plethora of very unpleasant symptoms including dizziness, blurred or tunnel vision, seizures, memory impairment, tinnitus, confusion, breathing difficulties, headaches, nausea, mood swings, numbness in limbs, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue and, in some cases, death.
Toxic fumes get into the cabin air through the “bleed air” system used in the vast majority of aeroplanes, whereby about half of the air in the aeroplane is sucked into the engine compressor, before being siphoned off into the air conditioning units and into cabin air. Problems occur when oil, which is used in the engine, heats up, evaporates and toxic chemical molecules move from engine space into the compressor, which are then re-circulated in the cabin. Incidents of toxic leakage are known of and referred to as “fume events”. Indentified by smoke or a very unpleasant smell, such events were previously considered to be rare occurrences caused by a specific fault with the air system or engine. However, worryingly, rather than a single faulty air system or engine causing a “fume event”, it seems possible that low level silent seepage of toxic fumes into the cabin air is happening constantly due to inadequate filtration systems. The exception becomes the norm.
The first research in this area was conducted by Dr Harry Hoffman, Professor Chris Winder and Jean-Christophe Balouet in 1999. The findings of their report suggested that exposure to contaminated air could result in long-term ill-health consequences and that further research was needed. A further study in 2012, which took place in Germany led by Dr Astrid Heutelbeck at the University of Gottingen, found traces of organophosphates and volatile organic compounds in the blood of those tested. That said, research is not yet conclusive. A specialist researcher in neurotoxicity at University College London has been trying to obtain funding for a large epidemiological study of those displaying symptoms of aerotoxicity, which, if obtained, may shed some further light on this issue.
Unsurprisingly, many in the aviation and manufacturing industry deny that aerotoxicity is an issue. In the meantime, claims against airlines for injuries as a result of toxically contaminated cabin air are on the rise both in America and the UK and a number of out of court settlements have been agreed.