Dutch court orders KLM to test for toxic fumes in 737s

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KLM has been ordered by a Dutch court to research and report by 27 November the components and concentration of neurotoxins in the engine oil fumes that sometimes contaminate cockpit and cabin air in its 46-strong Boeing 737 fleet.

The ruling relates to a case brought by a KLM pilot who has suffered four bouts of severe illness, allegedly as a result of flying. Each bout has been worse than the one before, but every time he was taken off flying he began to recover. Various known organophosphate neurotoxins were found in the pilot’s blood and urine and on his clothes, and the isomers of these toxins were the same as those in aircraft engine oil. His blood also contained high levels of relevant antibodies, the body’s defences against attack.

The ruling only affects KLM’s 737 fleet because this was the type the pilot, Willem Felderhof, flew. He brought the case when he last returned from sick leave, having been hospitalised for symptoms including heart arhythmia, and refused to fly until KLM took action to prevent fume occurrences. KLM suspended his pay.

The court has not ordered a restitution of Felderhof’s pay, but has ordered KLM to commission an independent laboratory or other agency to begin fume testing within two weeks of the verdict. The investigation must be completed within four weeks of its commencement, and a report filed within two weeks of completion of testing. The investigators are to involve Felderhof. If KLM fails to comply with any part of the ruling, the court has ordered the airline to pay Felderhof €1,000 ($1,350) a day for the period of non-compliance, up to a maximum of €50,000.

KLM says: “The court stated there is no demonstrated relationship between the presence of toxic organophosphates and the health issues of crew on board of aircraft. KLM will have to follow the judgement of the court and issue tests on the presence and amount of TCP [tri-cresyl phosphate] in the cockpit... On the matter of the presence of TCP KLM had never doubted this. It was also proven by several international investigations and studies.”

The airline adds: “The more relevant question is the [failure to confirm] a relationship between TCP and health issues. KLM has previously called for a thorough scientific investigation on this matter. The Dutch secretary of state [Wilma] Mansveld has made the same call for this.” If a relationship were established, says KLM, “this would mean it is a worldwide issue. Indeed, the types of aircraft [affected] are flying over the world. An investigation should be done with the full involvement of scientists and aircraft manufacturers on an international scale. This is something KLM and [State Secretary] Mansveld have advocated.”

Meanwhile, Steven Van der Heijden, the chief executive of Netherlands-based, TUI-owned ArkeFly, says his airline is researching tests to detect human resistance to oil-based neurotoxins. When tests are developed, he adds, he will require new pilots and cabin crew to undergo them, and will offer tests voluntarily to existing pilots and flight attendants.

Van der Heijden says he is trying to have organophosphate poisoning recognised as “an occupational disease” because as long as it is not recognised as such, crews suffering from it cannot claim any disability insurance and neither can they work, so are in serious financial trouble.