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.
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.