Toxins in the air

doctorGeneral fatigue. Mood and cognitive abnormalities. Musculoskeletal pain.

Those are not words you would think of related to flying, but they are all symptoms linked to aerotoxic syndrome. It is not well known to the general public because it is hushed by the airline industry and even taboo among crew members. Airlines have known about the problem for years but have never done anything about it. Although the medical community has recognized the Gulf War syndrome in 2008, aerotoxic syndrome is still not a formally recognizable disease. Possibly one of the most covered up syndromes of the airlines industry, aerotoxic syndrome could potentially turn into a public relations nightmare if not soon addressed by the airline industry.

The term was created in 1999 by Dr. Harry Hoffman, Professor Chris Winder, and Jean Balouet. They described the illness to be caused by breathing in contaminated aircraft air. Although the term has not been recognized medically, it is known to be a chronic multi-symptom illness that includes organ-specific and general symptoms. Although it was first thought the main cause of aerotoxic syndrome was caused by engine oils and hydraulic fluids, it has been discovered the following could also be potential threats:

  • Insecticides. Airplanes that land in foreign regions such as Cuba have to be sprayed inside the cabin with insecticides prior to landing. The in-charge flight attendant then has to hand over the empty bottles of pesticides to the ground crew before acquiring authorization to de-plane the passengers and crew members
  • Chemicals used in lavatories
  • Ingestion of de-icing fluid through the auxiliary power system
Ingestion of de-icing fluids into the APU inlet may cause aerotoxic syndrome.

Ingestion of de-icing fluids into the APU inlet may cause aerotoxic syndrome.

In addition, studies have shown that low level exposure to engine oil and the organophosphates cause neurological and behavioral changes. Airlines have many reports of fume-related incidents, though they have never done any damage control or reputation management. The Aviation Herald is still waiting for a reply to questions submitted to Lufthansa on Dec. 2, 2013 regarding a flight from Frankfurt to Germany who reported a fume event. The airline industry has never recognized aerotoxic syndrome in any press release or when speaking to the media. Aside from specific social media sites dedicated to aerotoxic syndrome, it is nearly impossible to find any information.

Could it be that airlines believe once this information becomes public knowledge, they fear their revenue and clientele will decline? Airlines have never publicly apologized to the crew members involved in the incidents. From a public relations perspective, their crisis management is subpar because they seem to be ignoring the problem when they should be addressing it directly. Some steps that should be taken to address the problem should be: including the syndrome in the flight crew training, giving workers compensation to crew members affected, and informing the media.

In March 2010, a U.S. Airways flight tail #251 had to return to the gate at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and nine people were sent to hospital with respiratory problems and eye irritation. The same plane had been involved in the same type of accident in January 2010 when 15 people got sick due to a foul odour in the aircraft. “There are some standard breathing treatments and drugs to relieve the pain in the throat,” said Scott White, a Carolina Medical Center spokesperson. U.S. Airways immediately released a statement saying it was an “electrical” smell that sickened the passengers and their “first and foremost priority is the safety of our passengers and employees and we have apologized to them for the inconvenience.” Shockingly, the aircraft took off again the same day heading to Montego Bay. Although the HAZMAT team did not find air contamination after the plane had landed in Charlotte, tail #251 had already made 15 people sick complaining of a “dirty sock” type odour on the airplane, a common complaint among those who experience aerotoxic syndrome. Of the seven crew members who were treated that day for air contamination, only six have returned to work. Charlotte’s News Channel 36 reported the same airplane had also been grounded on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30, 2009, on flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Those incidents were later traced back to a leak of hydraulic fluid, called Skydrol, in the engine.

Skydrol is an advanced fire resistant aviation hydraulic fluid that leaked through US Airways aircraft tail #251.

Skydrol is an advanced fire resistant aviation hydraulic fluid that leaked through US Airways aircraft tail #251.

“This airplane has a history and we are concerned and we’re monitoring it,” said James Ray, media chairman of the United States
Airline Pilots Association. The flight attendants union had expressed concerns about that specific aircraft previously. “It is unacceptable to expose crew members and passengers to these toxins, and it is also unacceptable to deny associated workers’ compensation claims and keep passengers in the dark”. 26 flight attendants have sued Alaska Air but lost when they filed a suit against Boeing. Passengers in Seattle and Nashville have also sued. Some experts are calling fumes event the “asbestos of the airline industry”. Are we looking at an airline cover up?

There seems to be a general standard to covering up such incidents. If airlines practiced transparency with press releases, better control of case studies, and implemented strict standard operating procedures, more awareness would be created. There seems to be a cover up in the system by the airline industry to keep this information from the crew members and general public. So next time you smell a foul odour resembling smelly feet on an aircraft, don’t blame your fellow seat-mate. Press the flight attendant call button and don’t be afraid to speak up and keep the crew informed.

Marie Latour


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