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Is the Air Quality on Passenger Planes Killing People?

Friends and family of suspected Aerotoxic Syndrome victims are claiming a global cover-up.

by Ben Gelblum
10 March 2015, 4:15am

Matt Bass

When he was a plane-obsessed seven-year-old, Matt Bass wrote to British Airways asking if he could work for them when he grew up. "Please apply when you are old enough," the airline wrote back.

That's exactly what he did, waiting nine years before enrolling on a work placement at Heathrow, manning the check-in desk on behalf of BA. Soon, he had the dream career he wanted, working his way up to chief flight attendant over a 15-year career for easyJet and BA.

But in 2013, the fit, gym-visiting flight attendant started losing weight, having digestive problems and suffering exhaustion. Despite many tests and visits to hospitals – including a visit to A&E after one flight because he felt so ill – nobody was able to figure out what was happening. Then, one evening in January of 2014, after a night out with friends, Matt went to have a rest on the sofa, fell asleep and never woke up. He was 35 years old.

A post mortem failed to establish a cause, so Matt's father Charlie paid for a second specialist post mortem by a leading forensic pathologist in Holland. This investigation found evidence of chronic exposure to organophosphates, a conclusion ratified by a top expert on organophosphate poisoning in the US.

Organophosphates are found in synthetic fertilisers, insecticides and – crucially – jet engine oil. In aircraft engines, a compound called cresyl phosphate is added to engine oil to prevent both overheating and wear and tear – but when warmed across the engine it produces toxic fumes. As a result, organophosphates are among a cocktail of toxic chemicals that a growing number of airline staff are blaming for damaging their health, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Chief among those who are calling for an investigation into the widespread damages of organophosphate fumes on commercial planes is the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE). The group, which represents over 850,000 pilots and cabin crew members worldwide, met with aviation and oil industry representatives in London recently to assert their claim that there is a "cover up" as to the true impact of organophosphate fumes on frequent flyers and members of the cabin.

GCAQE chair and former training pilot John Hoyte told me he had heard from dozens of affected pilots and air crew in the fortnight leading up to the summit – information he added to the 92-page dossier of emails he's been collecting since 2007. "I keep offering to pass on all this information to the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and transport ministers, but they don't want to know," said John, who has himself battled with illness he puts down to flying.

"The information has been there for years, it's just been covered up," John explained. "When jet transport started in the 1950s, mechanical air pumps pumped air into the cabin. Then in the 1960s the design changed to make use of all the air that was already being compressed for the jet engine. It was easier and cheaper to pipe the engine air straight into the air cabin. The latest Boeing 787 is the only totally safe passenger jet, as the design has a separate air supply for the cabin again."

Dr Susan Michaelis was a pilot until she started experiencing headaches, cognitive impairment, fatigue and other symptoms that ended her flying career prematurely aged just 34. She threw herself into studying contaminated cabin air, and her PhD and subsequent research has been at the forefront of the campaign to make flying safer.

Susan Michaelis

"Cabin air is supplied through the engine unfiltered and pumped into the cabin," she explained. "There are no filters except the lungs."

The design, wear and tear and maintenance failures mean that engine oil – along with a cocktail of toxins added to cope with the high temperatures, including organophosphates – can leak, contaminating the air supply.

In 2013, the UK government's Committee On Toxicity found that such fume events occur on 1 percent of flights, but Dr Michaelis suspects that toxic fumes affect all passenger flights to some degree (apart from those latest Boeing 787s). Since retiring in 1997, she has ploughed through a UK database of incidents that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and airlines compile, and unearthed shocking evidence of pilot impairment:

"In 34 percent of fume event reports there was some form of impairment of aircrew mentioned, and as they are not obliged to report impairment, I suspect [the true number of cases] is probably higher," she said. "Between 1985 and mid-2006, there were 194 (18 percent) reported cases of at least one pilot impairment and 93 (9 percent) cases of two-pilot impairment. In the 1,050 cases I looked at, I found 54 near accidents due to cognitive impairment. In one case, for example, the pilots forgot to slow down in descent, and had to be told by the control tower to come round again. The second time they wore oxygen masks and managed to land safely."

"Aerotoxic Syndrome" is the name attributed to collective symptoms described by a host of cabin crew, many of whom were in attendance at the recent conference. Flight attendants and pilots alike describe long-term symptoms such as headaches, tingling, numbness, dizziness, cognitive dysfunction, respiratory symptoms, fatigue, weakness and chemical sensitivity.

Dr Michaelis explained: "There are a range of EU/UN recognised hazards associated with exposure to the chemicals added to the engine oils, hydraulic and de-icing fluids. Not only neurotoxic [nerve damage] but also harm to the unborn, damage to fertility, genetic defects, carcinogenic, respiratory disorders, irritant and sensitising properties."

So who is affected? "As this is in the engineering design, everybody is exposed to low level oil fumes on every flight. Of 275 pilots we surveyed, 88 percent were aware of smells, 65 percent experienced some symptoms and 13 percent experienced chronic ill health. The problem has been documented for over 60 years, but the industry is doing everything in their power to put profit over safety."

Despite industry denials, the mood at the conference was animated. Just four days beforehand, a UK coroner inquiring into the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate had demanded the airline and CAA take "urgent action to prevent future deaths". Westgate suffered years of ill health including severe headaches, confusion and sight problems before he died, aged 43, in December of 2012.

Sheriff Stanhope Payne, senior coroner for Dorset, gave them until the 13th of April to respond to his concerns that people exposed to fumes circulating in planes faced "consequential damage to their health; that impairment of the health of those controlling the aircraft may lead to the death of occupants; that there is no real-time monitoring to detect such compounds in cabin air".

John Hoyte, chair of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive

British Airways told VICE that they would be responding to the coroner, but added: "We would not operate an aircraft if we believed it posed a health or safety risk to our customers or crew. Independent research, commissioned by the Department for Transport, concluded that there was no evidence that pollutants occur in the cabin air at levels exceeding available health and safety standards."

This isn't a view shared by Westgate's lawyer, Frank Cannon. "This is the first time a British coroner has come to the conclusion that damage is being done by cabin air, something the industry has been denying for years. There's been a cover-up," he told VICE. Frank last saw Westgate a few days before he died, and the pilot instructed him to sue BA for health and safety breaches, convinced his ill-health was related to exposure to toxic chemicals on planes he flew.

"As soon as he died we had an autopsy done, which showed organophosphate damage," said Frank. The Glasgow aviation lawyer is also an ex-pilot and once ran a small airline with 12 turboprop aircraft. He revealed that he is representing over 50 people with cases against nearly every major airline, and he has taken on ten more cases in the last ten days – and not only flight staff: "I have three frequent flyers on my books, too," he added.

So should all frequent flyers be worried? "If you fly more than three times a month you should test your DNA to check your ability to detoxify," warned Frank.

Dutch aviation doctor Michel Mulder – who has been using such tests to research sick pilots and cabin crew from all over the world – explained why certain people are affected more than others. "Research on Gulf War Soldiers returning with nerve damage found that about 8 or 9 percent of us have a genetic liver condition that makes it harder to process toxic chemicals such as the organophosphates present in cockpits and cabins," he said. "I think it likely that the same percentage of flying crew are affected by a condition that could lead to incapacity at work."

Over the course of his research, Dr Mulder has found nerve damage, dulled reactions and "incapacity" that he says is often reported as "fainting" by pilots.

"I find them unfit to fly," warned Dr Mulder, "but airlines wait for symptoms to decrease, then put them back in the cockpit. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Mulder's research team recently compared 12 pilots with 12 racing drivers. "The racing drivers were matched in age and gender," he said. "They are exposed to burning oils, too. But pilots have added exposure to the organophosphates in aviation engines. In MRI scans of their brains, we found significantly more damage to white matter in the pilots compared to racing car drivers."

The Boeing 787 is the only passenger jet to sport a separate air intake for the cabin

Former British Airways air stewardess Dee Passon had a career many envied, flying around the world to glamorous locations, until severe ill health caused her GP to sign her off with Aerotoxic Syndrome. She attributes her ongoing health problem, including fatigue, breathing difficulties and nerve pains, to noxious cabin air, including fume events she experienced when staff and passengers reported smells, coughing, vomiting and fainting.

"The government has failed to take action, so the crews have had to resort to helping themselves," Dee said.

Dee helped set up the Facebook page " Angel Fleet", dedicated to deceased BA pilots and air stewards. She has asked BA to divulge how many serving pilots die each year, to compare death rates with other professionals working long shifts. While London's Metropolitan Police Force divulged such figures (the annual Met death rate is around half that of cabin crew workers, although the cause of death varies across both groups), BA would not give Dee or her union representative any industry numbers.

"But from posts on colleagues we lost on Angel Fleet and obituaries I was sent, I found 23 serving staff and 42 retired staff who had passed away in 2014," said Dee. "That's about one a week, and there may well be more."

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesperson told VICE they would be responding to pilot Richard Westgate's coroner, adding: "Passenger and crew safety is of paramount importance to the CAA. Airlines are required to report any potential safety incidents, including where fumes or smoke are detected on board an aircraft. Although these incidents are rare, we take all reports seriously and review them to identify any safety issues or trends."

"The aviation industry has allowed this problem to remain unaddressed for six decades," Dr Michaelis responded, urging us all to let airlines know our concerns. "The industry refuses to address this and is still effectively in denial, so needs the public to tell them what is right and wrong."

"If it is proven that toxic air in the aircraft contributed to my son's death," Charlie Bass added, "I hope finally the industry cleans its act up."

@BenGelblum

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