Physicians in Germany have identified toxins in the bodies of aircraft crew members who fell ill during flights, presumably due to contaminated air from the engines.
While, there have been numerous reports of serious in-flight incidents possibly caused by toxic fumes in cockpits and cabins over the years, the medical ramifications of contaminated air had been little studied. Now various disorders have been linked to specific toxins.
Over a period of nearly three years, a team of occupational physicians led by Astrid Heutelbeck at the University of Goettingen took immediate post-flight blood and urine samples from more than 140 people
— most of them crew members — who
had complained of feeling unwell. Some
of the analytic techniques they used were
Besides organophosphates, known to have a harmful effect on enzymes in the body, the research team found traces of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or their by-products in many of the samples.
These substances attack the nervous and cardiovascular systems and also irritate the respiratory tract.
The physicians suspect the toxins are released at high temperatures from kerosene, oils and antifreeze in the engines and then leak into what is known as the “bleed air,” the hot compressed air taken from turbine engines that supplies the cabin air on almost all passenger planes.
Technicians often find pools of oil and antifreeze in aircraft engine compartments.
So-called “fume events” on aircraft have been described since the 1950s. Between 2006 to 2013, the German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (BFU) registered no fewer than 663 of them in a study published in 2014.
In late 2010, for instance, the pilot and co-pilot of a Germanwings Airbus on its final descent into Cologne Bonn Airport donned their oxygen masks after noticing a sharp burning smell. They became nauseous but landed the plane safely.
Despite many similar incidents, there is no scientific proof so far that aircraft cabin air can make a person ill. If it does, the crew is presumably much more likely to be affected than passengers.
The Goettingen University physicians plan to present their findings in the coming weeks at conferences and in scientific papers, where they will more precisely describe symptoms of the controversial illness known as “aerotoxic syndrome.”
In the view of the association of airline pilots and flight engineers in Germany, called Cockpit, aircraft manufacturers and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) must now take action. Armed with the BFU study, the association is calling for technical measures to prevent toxic fumes in aircraft cabins.
Cockpit advocates auxiliary turbines to supply cabin air, long the norm at the start of the jet age before being scrapped to cut costs and weight. Among modern wide-bodied jets, only the Boeing 787 does not draw bleed air directly from the engines.
Both Cockpit and the German cabin crew union UFO are urging thataircraft manufacturers and the EASA to eliminate the health risks that contaminated air poses to passengers and crew.
The BFU is calling for uniform quality standards for cabin air.
The University of Goettingen’s Dr Heutelbeck points out that for many of the toxic substances detected by her team, there are as yet no recommended safe levels in breathing air.
“All of these substances are prohibited in consumer products,” she said. “Guidelines exist only for workplaces with hazardous materials,but that doesn’t apply here.”
Germany’s major service-sector trade union Verdi says there should be a medical centre for diagnosis and treatment of people sickened by aircraft cabin air, adding that the union will stand up for the safety not only of flight crews.
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