How safe is the air we breathe on airplanes?
Britain’s largest union is calling for a public inquiry into toxic air in passenger planes as it emerged that one of Britain’s biggest airlines is set to fit new filters to stop particulates entering cabin air next year.
Unite the union, which represents over 25,000 cabin crew working for airlines operating out of the UK, is calling on the rest of the airline industry to follow suit now.
Unite also want airlines to use the latest technology to monitor chemicals in cabin air and are calling for an independent inquiry after members have been taken ill and their careers ended from what they insist is exposure to toxins on the aircrafts they flew in.
Airlines have always denied a link between contaminated airplanes and a whole host of health problems affecting pilots, crew and passengers, including several deaths of pilots and cabin crew blamed on what has been dubbed “aerotoxic syndrome.” – This despite many lawsuits for ill health being settled out of court.
Unite is currently pursuing around 90 legal cases on behalf of former and serving cabin crew across several UK airlines who have come forward over the past year.
They insist their health has suffered from “fume events” when foul-smelling fumes have filled the cabin, as well as from long term exposure to toxins in cabin air.
It has also been revealed that after many have been hospitalised from such events the NHS has actually set up a “care pathway” for victims of aircraft fume events with a specialist clinic at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
The Civil Aviation Authority admitted in a note about this new move: “there is strong evidence that some people experience acute symptoms as a consequence of fume events.”
The revelation this week that easyJet are now set to trial a new air filtration system was hailed by Unite as a long overdue breakthrough. and an acknowledgement of the health problems caused by contaminated “bleed air” and fume events on board aircraft.
Cabin air is a mixture of recycled air and “bleed” air “bled” in from the engines to pressurize it. The only commercial passenger jet not to use such a system is the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft with cabin air intake away from the engines. Boeing designed the high tech new air intake system after settling a lawsuit with a former flight attendant suffering from symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome for an unspecified sum.
EasyJet would not tell The London Economic if they would be replacing any of their fleet with such a new design that does not use Bleed air.
But this summer it was revealed at Farnborough Air Show that the low cost airline would switch the brand of lubricating oil to a less toxic variety, though it was claimed that this was for cost reasons.
The latest revelation that easyJet will also be fitting air filters to filter air before it comes into the cabin to be recycled was hailed as a “game changer” by Unite the union representing cabin crew.
Unite national officer for civil aviation Oliver Richardson said: “The move by easyJet to fit cabin air filters is a step in the right direction but more can and must be done to understand and combat toxic cabin air.
“The airline industry has been aware for years of the problem of contaminated cabin air and too many lives have been ruined for it to be swept under the carpet.
“But we need to go further and the airline industry needs to face up to its responsibilities to passengers and cabin crew.
“We need an independent inquiry so that the dangers of toxic cabin air can be fully assessed and investigated in an open forum to give passengers and cabin crew peace of mind that the air they breathe on aircraft is not going to damage their health.”
Unite sponsored the International Aircraft Cabin Air Conference in London this week as did Pall Aerospace the engineering firm who at Imperial College, London, unveiled the new air filters that easyJet have revealed they will be trialling.
Dr David Stein, Vice President of Pall Aerospace who manufacture HEPA filters for air circulating in aircraft, told The London Economic that their filter to intercept particles before the air is circulated in the cabin will be operational in late 2018.
“Our target is low, medium and high booking point VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), and we are particularly focussing on medium and high boiling point ones.”
The company has also developed a sensor for use in aircraft which will be available next year – an “electronic nose to detect VOC’s, oil, de-icing fluid or hydraulic fluid.” All these chemicals found in passenger jets contain toxins, especially when exposed to high temperatures and combined together.
The London Economic also spoke to Dr Astrid Heutelbeck who has spent the past few years attending to patients suffering pulmonary, neurological and cerebral symptoms after flights with suspected cabin air contamination at the University of Gottingen, Germany. Dr Heutelbeck revealed she has treated nearly 500 patients in three and a half years.
“The specific pattern we are seeing is firstly lung injury – the lung’s breathing mechanism is fine, but there are problems getting the oxygen out of the air,” said Dr Heutelbeck, adding that there are also a common pattern of symptoms related with neurotoxicity and small fibre nerve damage. Some of her patients have been exposed to fume events, other exhibit similar symptoms from repeated exposure to cabin air.
Dr Heutelbeck has also been treating passengers who are frequent flyers as well.
Unite’s Alex Flynn described similar symptoms reported by the union’s members: “headaches, nausea, fatigue, pains, loss of memory and longterm symptoms have led to members giving up work and becoming housebound.”
“If you look at some of the organophosphate compounds used in oil to lubricate engines, they are the same compounds used in chemical warfare,” added Flynn.
“We have been concerned with members exposed to these compounds either by bleed air or fume events so we set up the cabin air register last year asking members to register their details if involved in a fume event whether or not they have displayed ill health. That helps in evidence gathering, in a similar principle to the Asbestos register we also created.”
Flynn revealed that 150 people have made entries since the register began last year.
An easyJet spokesperson told The London Economic: “easyJet is working with Pall to identify and reduce incidents of unusual smell and fumes in the cabin – these events can have short term effects on health and can lead to flight disruption.
“This has no link with the study of whether any form of long-term illness occurs in airline crew due to exposures to cabin air.
“Independent medical research has found no evidence for any such link and that concluded that long-term toxic effects would not be expected.”
Watch this space…