Aircraft cabin fumes: The poisoning and disablement of those who fly

Posted by on December 1, 2009 in General, Summer 2009

Aircraft cabin fumes caused by oil leaking from engines and entering the cabin environment have been poisoning air travellers for decades. The resulting fumes also compromise the safe operation of the aircraft. The airline industry, regulators and governments have consistently denied this serious occupational health and safety problem.

In October 2000, the most detailed inquiry into aircraft cabin fumes onboard BAe 146 aircraft was published. This Australian Senate Inquiry report, Air Safety and Cabin Air Quality in the BAe 146, was prompted by hundreds of fume incidents. The Inquiry was demanded by aircraft crew and aviation unions. Appendix four of the Senate Inquiry report included 30 pages of documented fume events and aircraft crew symptoms of varying severity between August 1992 and December 1999, provided by the Flight Attendants Association of Australia. Nonetheless many industry players including Ansett, National Jet Systems (NJS) and Qantas downplayed the problem.

The BAe 146 is acknowledged as the most dangerous fume prone aircraft internationally. The oil used on BAe 146 aircraft in Australia is Mobil Jet Oil II (MJO) and it is the dominant jet oil used on many types of aircraft internationally. Other aircraft that have significant fume problems include Boeing 737 and 757, Airbus A320 and the MacDonald Douglas MD 80 but not to the same extent as the BAe 146. Aircraft crews at some airlines have refused to fly on certain aircraft, for example in 2007 the staff at Flybe boycotted the BAe 146.

Toxic jet oil

The jet oil that enters the cabin environment contains Tricresyl Phosphate. TCP can damage nervous systems, cause loss of co-ordination, muscle paralysis and cognitive impairment. A 1998 study found that symptoms of jet oil exposure on BAe 146 aircraft included disorientation, numbness, tingling of nose and lips, headache, respiratory problems and burning eyes and throat. Some people required hospitalisation.

In 2005, Mohamed Abou-Donia, a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke University Medical Centre, documented neurological deficiencies from an examination of the blood of eight aircraft crew consistent with TCP exposure. He noted that whether a person recovered depends on the level of damage and where damage is extensive there is likely to be a permanent loss of function. Furthermore in 2005, respiratory physician Jonathan Burdon and thoracic physician Allan Glanville undertook a study of 14 aircraft crew. This study found lung injury to all 10 flight attendants and 4 pilots that flew on the BAe 146 and that many ‘abnormalities are irreversible’.

Exposures can also result in long term chronic conditions such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). The variety of symptoms has resulted in the term Aerotoxic Syndrome to incorporate the numerous and often disabling conditions experienced.

What regulation?

The manufacturer of the BAe 146 British Aerospace (BA), now BAE Systems, resisted acknowledging health and safety problems to the Senate Inquiry. A Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI) enquiry in 1997 of an incident in which two pilots were incapacitated by cabin fumes on board a NJS BAe 146 found that fumes resulted in the commanding pilot having ‘difficulty in concentrating on the operation of the aircraft, and had suffered from a loss of situational awareness…[and] his control inputs had become jerky and he began suffering vertigo. He relinquished control of the aircraft to the co-pilot, who continued with the approach and landing’. BA interpreted this to be a ‘pilot suffered vertigo’ as a result of selecting air sources that were ‘previously diagnosed as faulty’.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has also expended considerable effort denying a significant problem with cabin fumes and attempting to blame crew for heath and safety problems. In response to a preliminary BASI report of the 1997 incident CASA blamed the crew for using the wrong equipment. CASA later admitted at the Senate Inquiry that they were incorrect and there were no crew restrictions on using equipment. The equipment was classed by NJS as a ‘deferred defect’ and listed as ‘Repair at the company convenience’. According to Mick Toller the CASA director this meant that NJS did not view this deferred defect as ‘sufficiently serious to require immediate repair’ but it contributed to the fume incident. However, the Senate Inquiry was critical of CASA, British Aerospace and Australian airlines failure to act on the BASI report recommendations.

Shoot the messenger and ignore the problem

Medical professionals aligned to the aviation industry such as Robert Loblay attempted to individualise cabin fume poisoning and explain the crew illnesses including MCS in terms of psychological problems. Loblay has a long history of blaming the individuals for chemical exposure related health problems outside of the cabin fume controversy. Curiously he admitted no experience examining crew made ill on BAe 146 aircraft although he did testify against aircrew at trial who were forced to leave work and seek compensation because of their illness/disability and inability to work. The Chairman of the Inquiry, Senator Woodly, termed Loblay’s evidence ‘dubious in the extreme’ and ‘consisted mostly of scandalous attacks on the other medical experts who gave, or were to give, evidence’.

In spite of increasing evidence of the impact of fumes on pilots, regulators internationally have attempted to side step the duty of care owed to crew and passengers and deny a significant problem. International regulatory failure is also reflected in government inaction. It took nearly two years before the Australian government responded to the Senate Inquiry findings and even then the numerous recommendations were ignored. The government chose instead to monitor overseas studies.

This business as usual approach has given the green light to the aviation industry and has allowed the situation to continue and worsen. BAe 146 operated for Qantas by NJS are continuing to poison those on board. Documents tabled in 2002 by Senator Knowles showed Qantas/NJS could not guarantee a safe working environment on these aircraft. A letter from NJS to a fume injured crew member noted that ‘we cannot confidently and absolutely guarantee that no cabin contamination will occur on board a 146 aircraft. We are not prepared to risk compromising your health. Accordingly, the 146 flying option is no longer available to you. As a result, you are hereby notified that your employment is terminated due to redundancy of your position’.

Knowles pointed out that crew are not reporting fume problems that could ground aircraft, and there is ‘a culture of silence among most crews. They are now fearful of anyone going public because they have been threatened that they will all be sued’. This further compounds existing problems with the maintenance of aircraft.

Crew and passengers appear expendable under Qantas/NJS practices. Many pilots and flight attendants in Australia and overseas have been forced out of their jobs due to ill health. Passengers are usually unaware of the fume issue and thus unlikely to link any health problems to fume exposure particularly when not all fumes are visible. This is compounded by airlines generally not disclosing fume incidents to passengers.

Corporate cover up

Another indictment of the BAe 146 aircraft is an admission in a 1993 document of a secret settlement agreement between British Aerospace, Eastwest Airlines and Ansett. The document, released by Senator O’Brien in 2007, stated that BA agreed to pay Ansett and East West Airlines $750,000 settlement being final settlement ‘either now or in the future in respect of oil or other fumes adversely affecting the cabin environment’. O’Brien points out that this information was withheld from the Senate Inquiry and called on the government and CASA to investigate other failures to disclose defect agreements.

In the face of government and regulatory failure aircraft crew have been forced to develop their own advocacy and information dissemination organizations. John Hoyte former pilot with Flybe had to stop flying after he was ‘poisoned by noxious cabin air’ and formed the Aerotoxic Association. Hoyte stated that ‘passengers’ lives are definitely at risk’. Other aircraft organizations set up include the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive and the Aviation Organophosphate Information Site.

Choosing health and safety

The current global financial crisis has seen the collapse of many airlines and airline losses of $16.8US billion in 2008 and $11US billion in 2009. Cost cutting particularly on maintenance may lead to an increase in fume incidents and to the risk of a major accident.

The evidence suggests the BAe 146 aircraft should be grounded internationally but this is unlikely until a major accident. Nonetheless increased pressure on the Australian government has led to the establishment of an Expert Panel on Aircraft Air Quality by CASA due to report in early 2010. One of the panel members, Robert Loblay, is credited as an ‘expert’ on MCS. The history of cabin fume contamination and the prior roles of CASA and Loblay suggest the result will be more technically focused research and does not bode well for aircraft crew or passengers. Crew and passengers would be better served to follow Flybe crew and not travel on fume prone aircraft.

Nickolas Vakas’s PhD on Interests and the Shaping of an Occupational Health and Safety Controversy: The BAe 146 Case can be viewed at http://ro.uow.edu/theses/76.

Websites:

References:

Abou-Donia, M. (2005). “Organophosphorus Ester-Induced Chronic Neurotoxicity.” Journal of Occupational Health and Safety - Australia and New Zealand 21(5):408-432.

BASI (1999). Occurrence Brief 199702276, Department of Transport and Regional Services, Commonwealth of Australia.

Burdon, J. and A. Glanville (2005). “Lung Injury Following Hydrocarbon Inhalation.” Journal of Occupational Health and Safety - Australia and New Zealand 21(5): 450-454.

Cox, L. and S. Michaelis (2002). “A Survey of Health Symptoms in BAe 146 Aircrew.”
Journal of Occupational Health and Safety - Australia and New Zealand 18(6):
305-312.

SRRATRC (2000). Air Safety and Cabin Air Quality in the BAe 146 Aircraft, Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia.

van Netten, C. (1998). “Air Quality and Health Effects Associated with the Operation of BAe 146-200 Aircraft.” The Journal of Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene13(10): 733-739.

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