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If you are a frequent flier, or happen to be a commercial pilot or flight attendant, then the following information is very important to be aware of. A recent study now confirms a link between chemical contaminants in the cabin air of airplanes and chronic and acute health problems.

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The head researcher of the study, Dr. Susan Michaelis, explains that the air you’re breathing in-flight is ‘bled’ into the cabin via the engine compressor. This system is liable to infiltration from vapours from the engine oil that contain very harmful chemicals including tricresyl phosphate – a type of organophosphate that is known to cause damage to the nervous system.

Originally, organophosphates were produced to kill, being used in nerve gasses and pesticides.

The Study

The study, which was just conducted this year, analyzed data that was collected from British Airways pilots and 15 cabin-air incidents across Australia, Germany, the UK and the  USA.

Dr. Michaelis collected data on symptoms reported by both aircrew and passengers and found that the neurological and respiratory systems were being primarily affected; this includes, exhaustion, difficulty breathing, headaches, disorientation, tremors, blurred vision, paralyses and vomiting.

‘Asbestos Of The Sky’

Back in 2000, this aerotoxic pollution was aptly named the “asbestos of the sky.” Since then, it has been a focus of aviation investigation, documentaries, and lawsuits from both the public and the airline crew.

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In 2010, Australian flight attendant Joanne Turner became the first person ever to win a civil case against the airlines for health impacts she suffered from breathing the air in the cabin. This is the same air that we all breathe, every time we fly.

There have been many people working away to try and raise awareness about this and to expose this issue that is very much off of the radar. Dee Passon, Former British Airways Cabin Service Director, has suffered her own illness and has now been at the forefront of bringing light to this issue; in 2008 she co-founded the Toxic Free Airlines.

Passon first noticed a decline in her health in 1996 after she was called to work on a flight where all of the previous crew members had been taken to the hospital because of breathing difficulties.

According to Passon, “The first time alarm bells began to ring about my occupation was when I was greeted by the oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, he told me, ‘You are my eighth lady from British Airways this week.’”

After that, she began to compile a list of the crew who had passed away.

“I found there had been at least 32 deaths in 34 months.”

After she sent this list to a British Airways doctor, her employment was terminated.

After being diagnosed with aerotoxic syndrome in 2009, Passon’s health issues included obstructed lungs, cardiac dysfunction, osteopenia of the spine, chronic fatigue syndrome, various chemical sensitivity, under active thyroid and severe damage to the nervous system.

“Why did it take me so long to realize it was flying making me ill? Because I believed the air I breathed on board the aircraft was filtered; I believed my health and safety at work was protected by law.”

“This issue affects everyone who flies.”

Is It Really ‘Jet Lag’ That You Are Feeling After Flying Long Distances?

An ex-pilot who wishes to remain anonymous also contributes his health issues to exposure to the deadly chemicals he faced over a period of 30 years while in the air travel industry.

“All those years I’d been putting it down to jet lag,” he said.

“There’s an alternative system they can use, this issue is totally preventable. Thousands of people are being poisoned that don’t need to be.”

What Do The Manufacturers Have To Say?

Unfortunately, the general consensus among airlines and their manufacturers insist that aerotoxic syndrome is a non-issue. An employer of British Airlines has said “There has been substantial research into questions around cabin air quality over many years… it has not shown that exposure to potential chemicals in the cabin causes long-term ill health.”

Lufthansa group, however, has confirmed that they will be investing into new technology that can check and monitor quality of cabin air.

Boeing – one of the largest aircraft manufacturers have said, “Our bleed air systems meet all applicable FAA requirements and an overwhelming body of scientific evidence confirms the safety of them and the air on board our airplanes.”

Despite the previous statement, Boeing is, as of now, the only airline manufacturer to use a new “clean air” system on board its 787 Dreamliner. At the launch of this aircraft in 2009, Boeing promised passengers that they would “arrive at their destination fresher.” Even though, when questioned about what this meant a spokesman from Boeing said, “People feel better after a long flight on the 787 because of its lower cabin altitude and higher humidity. The lack of a bleed air system does not affect this feeling.” But, an extract from Boeing’s evidence to a House of Lords select committee on Science and Technology in 2007 actually contradicts this, stating that the Boeing 787 would have no-bleed architecture that would eliminate “the risk of engine oil decomposition products being introduced in the cabin supply air in the rare event of a failed seal.”

What Now?

Many lawsuits have been filed, and thankfully people who have suffered adverse health effects have been awarded sums for any damages.

It is important to raise awareness about this issue so that more people and particularly airline employees can take the necessary precautions to protect themselves. Hopefully, enough pressure from the public will encourage the airlines to finally fix this issue, as it is something that can be fixed. Until then you can protect yourself by wearing a mask. When people ask you why you’re wearing a mask, it is a great opportunity to spread this knowledge around and inform others!

To learn more about aerotoxic syndrome, and what you can do to raise awareness, protect yourself and others visit,

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