Toxic cabin air: will the industry act now?

British Airways may be centre stage for this week’s report on a case of pilot and cabin crew terminal illness, but cabin air contamination is an industry-wide problem and not related to a specific airline or aircraft type.

As more and more pilots and cabin crew come forward with manifestations of organophosphate-induced neurotoxicity (OPIN), it is getting more difficult for airlines, manufacturers and government departments to take the official line that it has nothing to do with their work.

And as more medical knowledge on the subject is accumulated, and more tissue-damage samples are gathered, it will become even more difficult.

The Richard Westgate case is likely to become an industry watershed. Westgate was a 43-year-old BA pilot who died in December 2012, and the difference in his case – from the evidential point of view – is that he had extensive medical tests done both before his death and by autopsy after it.

British Airways Senior First Officer Richard Westgate

British Airways Senior First Officer Richard Westgate

Most crew OPIN victims suffer traumatic symptoms and lose their jobs and their health, not their life.

But in January this year, a BA steward has died, and although his case was not recognised before death, his autopsy has revealed almost identical OPIN symptoms to those of Westgate.

The autopsies have been done, but there is no Coroner’s verdict yet on either case. So at this stage no-one is claiming that organophosphate poisoning was the direct cause of death. But it weakened their systems, destroying their resistance to whatever killed them.

As lawyer Frank Cannon remarks: “They can try explaining one [case] away, but not another and then another. The problem for them is that we know where to look now. ”  He has many more cases on his books.

The fact that, as Cannon says,  ”we know where to look now” is the result of the expertise of Prof Mohamed Abou-Donia, a world class toxicologist, the man who was responsible for identifying the biochemical causes of Gulf War Sydrome.

The industry can pursue several potential solutions to prevent engine-oil-based organophosphates getting into cabin air, and it knows this, but it had better accelerate its efforts.

Britain has been particularly resistant to information about the dangers of cabin air contamination. Germany is more worried, and has been for some time, but that’s because their reporting system is more honest.

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3 Responses to Toxic cabin air: will the industry act now?

  1. Eric Willner 5 August, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Given how few airlines have purchased one of the few books on the subject (Air Travel and Health by Allan Seabridge and Cynthia Morgan), it seems they really haven’t been paying attention to this critical issue. It’s all to easy to exlain away symptoms on an individual basis, and so very difficult to prove defintively that bleed air is the cause. This annoucement at least adds to the bruden of evidence. A bit like tryiong to convince global warming sceptics?

  2. 747 Pilot 5 August, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Hi David,

    Thank you for continuing to write about this. I am a 747 pilot and reported breathing oil fumes to my employer. When I brought up the term “aerotoxic syndrome,” the company doctor pretended that he “might have heard something about that but I’m not sure.” I was not given a blood test but rather an MRA to see if my headache was due to blood flow problems.

    No one wants to admit that organophosphate poisoning occurs. Please keep writing about it. Maybe then, something will be done.

  3. GCAQE 10 August, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    The issue of breathing oil fumes in aircraft has been well known since the early 1950s. It is an expected consequence of using a pressurised bleed air system to supply air to the cabin. The industry knows only too well about it- since 2000 there have been over 100 government and aviation industry studies on the contaminated air topic in the US, UK, Europe and Australia alone.The studies have included 6 inquiries, 15 standards, 75 research studies, advanced rule making and public laws. Around half are reported to have cost around 100 million euros(rest unknown) and none have resolved the problem or even gone remotely close to doing so. some partially acknowledge the problem, many are in denial. What is lacking is the will to fix it- The solutions are there or could be if the will was there.

    Concerns about the findings of this autopsy case study report were raised by the lead scientists (Aldridge) in 1954- 6 decades ago- surely its time to act!

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