by Hugh Morris, Travel News Editor, The Telegraph, 30 May 2018
The Hague should conduct an independent public inquiry into the health effects of breathing toxic cabin air on planes, says a group that claims to have the support of 2,500 “victims” of so-called aerotoxic syndrome.
|Air used to pressurize the cabins is bled through|
the engines. Credit: Getty
“The problem of passengers and aircrew being exposed to toxic air has been known about since the Fifties, and there has been mounting evidence to support the causal link between exposure on aircraft and both acute and chronic ill health,” said John Hoyte, former pilot and founder of the organisation. “Despite this, the industry, the UK Government and regulatory bodies have yet to take any action to prevent this and to protect the public.”
Airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have long denied a link between contaminated cabin air and aerotoxic syndrome, which has been blamed for the deaths of several pilots.
When air is contaminated on a plane it is known as a “fume event”, and can lead to passengers and even pilots becoming ill and the oxygen masks being deployed.
Last year, new research published in a World Health Organisation journal found that breathing toxic cabin air was linked to cancer, chronic fatigue and neurological problems.
At a glance | What is a fume event?
A fume event is when bleed air used to pressurize the cabin of an aircraft is contaminated by chemicals such as engine oil, hydraulic fluid, or other potentially hazardous chemicals.
The CAA says: “Up to half the cabin air is re-circulated and passes through high efficiency filters, similar to those used in hospital operating theatres, to remove bacteria, viruses and other particles before it is mixed with outside air from the air-conditioning units.”
Campaigners say that if a fault occurs in the engine seals, then the air can become contaminated with neurotoxic chemicals such as tricresyl phosphate.
Such events are regularly reported by sites such as the Aviation Herald. For example, at the beginning of May, it reported on a Spirit Airlines plane which performed a rapid descent after an odour "of musty, dirty feet" developed in the cabin. Oxygen masks were deployed and on landing three cabin crew were taken to hospital feeling unwell.
Despite long-standing concerns over bleed air - which has in part led airlines including EasyJet to trail new filtration systems and Boeing to build its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft using a different method of pressurisation - there has been little clarity over its potential ill-effects.
The Aerotoxic Association is asking the 2,500 victims it says it has been in contact with over the last 10 years to submit evidence of their experiences “marked for the attention of the International Criminal Court, The Hague, The Netherlands”.
The International Criminal Court at The Hague is most often used to rule on cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It has only ever opened 11 investigations, including crimes committed in Darfur, Sudan and Mali.
John Hoyte, who flew as a commercial pilot for 30 years before retiring early due to ill health, said: “Despite decades of evidence and scientific research, air passengers are still put at risk every day from this preventable danger.
“In most areas of life we work on the precautionary principle to protect health and wellbeing, yet despite the huge amount of scientific evidence to show the effects of this preventable issue, the industry, UK Government and regulators have buried their heads in the sand. It is time for an Independent Public Inquiry to finally resolve this and to determine the necessary actions to protect the public.”
Mr Hoyte would like the inquiry to establish whether “the known technical solutions should be introduced in bleed air jet airlines”.
In 2015, Unite the union called for a public inquiry into the health effects of “fume events” and warned that there is “insufficient monitoring and research into aerotoxic syndrome”. It said it was planning legal action on behalf of a number of cabin crew of British airlines it said had been poisoned by contaminated cabin air.
In February of the same year, a coroner investigating the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate ruled that fumes circulating in planes posed “consequential damage” to the health of frequent fliers and crew.
The CAA response | What our aviation authority says about toxic cabin air
A CAA spokesperson said:
“Our priority is always the safety of passengers and crew and we continue to work with airlines, manufacturers and international regulators to drive improvements in safety standards across the industry.
“We understand the concerns that have been raised about cabin air quality and we take very seriously any suggestions that people have suffered ill health from flying.
“We rely on guidance from scientific experts based on the results of a number of independent studies and evidence reviews - including Government commissioned research.
“The overall conclusion of those studies is that there is no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible acute and long-term health effects, although such a link cannot be excluded. Accordingly, we support the steps being taken by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which maintains responsibility for approving the safety of aircraft and setting aviation standards for European airlines, and is carrying out further research into cabin air quality.
“It is important that we continue to support this work, which we believe will help significantly improve the global aviation industry’s understanding of what, if any, impact exposure to fumes has on people’s long-term health.”
However, the CAA maintains that incidents of smoke or fumes on aircraft are rare and there is no evidence of negative long-term health effects.
Telegraph Travel first reported on the issue in 2008, detailing incidents in which contaminated cabin air had been referred to in reports filed by pilots. Dr Mackenzie Ross, a clinical neuropsychologist at University College London, estimated at the time that the problem was affecting up to 200,000 passengers each year.