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


Dreams Take Flight makes dreams come true

Dreams Take Flight is no ordinary flight. It is not about achieving flight or flying in itself. It is, however, about a takeoff; the takeoff of a dream. Since October 1995, Dreams Take Flight has been creating dreams. Thanks to sponsors, volunteers and donors who come together every year, Dreams Take Flight is able to contribute in a significant way to the community and those less fortunate.

Dreams Take Flight is a non-profit organization that gives a chance to less fortunate children to create an unforgettable memory.  Created by Air Canada employees in 1989, Dreams Take Flight has given 23,000 children who have life-threatening illnesses or special needs the chance to travel to Orlando, Fla., U.S.A., where they are given a chance to “be a child for a day.”  What better place than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, also known as the happiest place on earth, to do so?

However, bringing these children to this magical land requires an aircraft, a fully certified air crew, volunteers, and more. The total cost of bringing 125 children and 95 volunteers to Disney World for one day is $195,000. Air Canada helps by lending a “dry” Airbus aircraft and Shell donates the fuel for the round trip to Orlando, while an air crew of Air Canada’s pilots, flight attendants and aircraft technicians are recruited to volunteer for the round-trip flight. However, once air-born, this is not a regular flight. Flight attendants are encouraged to wear costumes and sing; pillow fights, conga lines, and toilet paper races are quite common on these flights!

Fundraising takes place throughout the year to cover all other expenses, including admission to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, transportation costs, food, souvenirs, and a memory book that helps the children revisit the special day. Gold level sponsors include the Air Canada Foundation, Mark’s, Bentley, Crocs, Vieux Duluth, Giant Tiger, Dream Mountain Foundation, Rotary Club of South Nepean, and Party City. Party City took advantage of Halloween to promote their kid’s costumes through Air Canada, where an in-store donation to Dreams Take Flight could be made. In Vancouver, Aeroplan miles could be donated to the organization as well.

Air Canada volunteers, community members, and sponsors are key to this charitable organization. Volunteers spend countless hours organizing and planning fundraising events and raffles. 3,000 raffle tickets must be sold this year in Ottawa and they are $10 each. Volunteers are asked to sell tickets from November to December when the draw will be take place. On Friday Feb. 21, Dreams Take Flight will be hosting a fundraiser called Rockin’ for Dreams at Fatboy’s Southern Smokehouse, located at 34 Murray Street in Ottawa, Canada, where the crowd will be entertained by a live performance by the band The StittsVillans. A 50/50 raffle draw will also be held. All funds raised during the event will go to Jason Colley’s 2014 Dream Mountain Foundation Kilimanjaro trek. All the money Jason will be raising will be going straight to the Ottawa chapter of Dreams Take Flight. Members of the community can donated either by mail or credit card, or online through Paypal. Three coin boxes have also been set up in convenient locations throughout the Ottawa Airport in order to accept donations of small change.

As for media coverage, Dreams Take Flight uses radio and television broadcasts. Police chief Brad Duncan and a number of officers from London, Ont., as well as volunteers from the local Home Sense, London Health Science Center, nurses, doctors, and physiotherapists recently volunteered for the Dreams Take Flight trip. The Toronto Police Service included a special post about Dreams Take Flight on their website that covered the event and details of the flight. Local celebrity appearances by former Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmer and former WWE wrestler Trish Stratus grabbed the media’s attention. Details of the events were also broadcast on radio stations such as 91.7 Spirit , and on television stations including Rogers and Shaw TV. Ads also ran in local newspapers such as the Toronto Sun. CityTV aired coverage on May 8, 2013, showing volunteers and children arriving at the Air Canada international hangar at the Pearson airport. On June 4,2013, once they had safely landed in Orlando, Winged Wheels, a motorcycle precision team, helped carry the children from the airplane to buses.  Fundraisers are usually promoted through social media and word of mouth. On Sept. 12, Air Canada’s employees raised $3,600 at the annual “Coffee, Tea or Me?” event.

The child selection for the trip is done through social service agencies that serve special needs family. These agencies provide specialized services such as parent support and family therapy. Dreams Take Flight also works in conjunction with charities like Children at Risk, ODAWA Native Friendship Center, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Ottawa, Ottawa Children’s Treatment Center, Military Family Resources, and the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.  Dreams Take Flight is presently interested in expanding their database of children’s agencies in Ottawa. On Sept. 24, they brought approximately 120 to 130 children to Orlando.

Dreams Take Flight uses various media channels to communicate with the public.  On May 25, 2010, they created their Twitter profile @DTF Ottawa. With 183 followers, their Twitter account is used to promote sponsorships such as @Thetinylight, who provide free photos for families. Volunteers from Ottawa use Twitter to connect with other volunteers in other areas, such as Toronto or Vancouver.  Dreams Take Flight also has a YouTube account where viewers can watch short videos of the trips for different cities. For example Winnipeg’s trip has amassed 790 views thus far. Ottawa’s trip was posted nine months ago and already has 523 views.  A calendar on their website also lists every event they are hosting. It is easy to find, and the events are clearly listed with the time and location.

A child who recently came back from the trip describes the plane ride as “amazing and the whole experience was a lot of fun.” Today, she says “she has some new friends as a result of the trip.”

“I’m thrilled to be part of this trip,” said Toronto’s deputy chief.  “Every kid should get to go to Disney World. When you see their faces smiling and their laughter, you realize it’s a magical place.”

With the support of donors, volunteers, and sponsors, this organization will be able to grow and expand. It is through the generous donations of time and money that this charity has become such a success. Beginning in Toronto, Dreams Take Flight has expanded to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, and Ottawa.  Ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts, dreams are about to come true.

Marie Latour