Suspected Air Quality Hazard on Commercial Aircraft Confirmed In Latest Research

Flying could be hazardous to your health in more ways than one, according to the findings of a new study of more than 200 aircrew, which show links between fumes and ill health from contaminated air blown into aircraft cabins.

A clear pattern of acute and chronic symptoms, ranging from headaches and dizziness to breathing and vision problems, was found by researchers from Scotland’s Stirling University.

“This research provides very significant findings relevant to all aircraft workers and passengers globally,” said Dr Susan Michaelis of the university’s occupational and environmental health research group.

“There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship linking health effects to a design feature that allows the aircraft air supply to become contaminated by engine oils and other fluids in normal flight.

“This is a clear occupational and public health issue with direct flight-safety consequences.”

Two separate reviews of aircrew who had been exposed to reported incidents of fumes were analysed for the study, which was published in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) journal Public Health Panorama.

In one of the reviews, 65 percent of aircrew reported ill health effects.

In the other, which looked at specific oil leak incidents, 75 percent recorded adverse symptoms.

Further reports of fumes both before and after the incidents under review were noted in two-thirds of the cases. The symptoms for 93 percent ranged from in-flight impairment to incapacitation.

According to Professor Vyvyan Howard of the University of Ulster: “What we are seeing here is aircraft crew being repeatedly exposed to low levels of hazardous contaminants from the engine oils in air, and to a lesser extent this also applies to frequent fliers.

“We know from a large body of toxicological scientific evidence that such an exposure pattern can cause harm and, in my opinion, explains why aircrew are more susceptible than average to associated illness.

“However, exposure to this complex mixture should be avoided also for passengers, susceptible individuals and the unborn.”

The researchers say that the most likely cause of so-called “aerotoxic syndrome” is organophosphate chemicals used in jet engines.

Because the chemicals attack the outer coatings of nerve cells “it tends not to cause a clear-cut set of localising signs and symptoms that are instantly recognisable as a syndrome, but a pattern of diffuse neurological symptoms.”

The study authors explained that multiple sclerosis, which involves a similar type of nerve damage, also has diffuse symptoms.

The scientists concluded: “A clear cause and effect relationship has been identified linking the symptoms, diagnoses and findings to the occupational environment. Recognition of this new occupational disorder and a clear medical investigation protocol are urgently needed.”

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