Could On-Board Flight Pollution Be Affecting You?


The Law Of… flying in the know.

Research into the true exposure of passengers and flight staff to toxic fumes on airplanes is currently being carried out by scientists with worrying findings.

Our Phillip Gower answers questions on these toxic fume events and what the long-term issues are with aerotoxic syndrome – also known as 'pilots' disease'.

How Are Toxic Fumes Getting To Passengers And Staff?

When a plane is up in the air, the environment on-board needs to be controlled, allowing passengers to breathe clean air and stop areas of the plane from freezing over. This is done via what is called a bleed-system whereby the air for breathing is drawn in through the engines of the plane and cleaned via chemical reactions.

If the bleed-system has component failures, it is possible for contaminants to get into the system and leak into the on-board atmosphere.

What Happens If The Fumes Get Into The Plane?

If there is a serious component malfunction and the toxic levels are particularly high, it can make passengers and flight staff immediately ill. These are known as 'toxic fume events'. If this does happen, pilots and flight-staff coordinate an immediate safe landing of the plane.

Toxic fume events are quite rare. In most instances, the breakdown of the bleed system leads to a smaller amount of fumes leaking into the air on-board. Whilst this does not pose a short-term effect, pilots in particular have begun to speak out about the long term effects of exposure to these fumes over long periods of time.

An increase in diagnosis of aerotoxic syndrome amongst pilots has seen a call for research into the long term effects of over-exposure to these toxic fumes.

What Is Aerotoxic Syndrome?

Also known as hyper hypoxia, aerotoxic syndrome is the over exposure of toxic fumes, usually diagnosed in pilots. If a person is exposed to an increase level of toxic fumes, it reduces the ability of the blood to carry oxygen around the body.

There are different levels of exposure that include:

  • Mild poisoning – fatigue, dizziness, sweating, headaches, inability to concentrate, anxiety, tremors of the tongue and eyelids, and tightness of the chest.
  • Moderate poisoning – in addition to the above symptoms: abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, slow pulse, fall in blood pressure and muscular tremors.
  • Severe Poisoning – pinpoint and non-reactive pupils, muscular twitching, wheezing, respiratory difficulties, cough, pulmonary oedema, diarrhoea, convulsions, coma, heart block and possibly death.

What Is Being Done?

There is a call from British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) for more research into the issues of over-exposure to toxic fumes for airline staff. Research so far has demonstrated a significant link between pilots and adverse health effects because of over-exposure.

There are also concerns regarding the hazards posed on passengers. The Department for Transport partook in four independent studies that found no conclusive link yet. They found that aircraft air quality was "similar or better than," normal indoor environments.

In an attempt to protect airline staff from build-ups of toxic fume exposure, Dr Clement Furlong is developing a blood test that will enable crews to determine if they've inhaled oil fumes on-board.

There is also a call for airline staff to have more in-depth training on how to recognise signs that the pollution levels on-board have risen to a critical level. New technology is also being developed that will mean outside air is no longer taken in via the engine.

How Can Simpson Millar Help?

If you work for an airline or are worried about over-exposure to toxic fumes on a flight you have taken recently, contact our Industrial Disease solicitors for specialist advice: 0800 260 5010

Phillip comments:

"It is quite evident that airlines are ignoring this significant issue. Denial is not going to help anyone and it doesn’t help the further development of alternatives to the bleed-system."

"It's important that holiday-goers aren't panicked needlessly, but more research is needed to put everyone involved at rest."

"I worry for passengers, of course, but the long-term effects on airline staff is a particular concern. It's not fair for anyone to be put in working conditions that are so unsafe."

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