Toxic Planes: What the Airlines Don't Tell You
Few of us give much thought to the air we breathe when we fly on a passenger jet aircraft. But when you think about it, there's something quite miraculous about sitting in comfort in a pressurized aluminum tube at 8000 meters, when outside it's about minus 55°C and the atmospheric pressure is about one-fifth that at ground level.
For about 50 years one of the technologies that has made international jet travel possible is the bleed air pressurization — which draws hot air out of the engine, cools it down, and then ducts it into the plane cabin and cockpit.
Before it was introduced, planes flying at high altitude, such as the bomber pilots flying over Europe during World War II, had to wear oxygen masks and endure often freezing temperatures inside their cockpit. The B29 Superfortress bomber ushered in bleed air pressurization, using the compressors in the engines to duct warm air into the cockpit. The Lockheed Constellation aircraft followed post-war and the rest is history.
But eight years ago, during a Senate inquiry in the Australian Parliament, the then head of Australia's air safety watchdog, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), conceded what many flight crew have known for decades: that on occasion these bleed air systems can be contaminated with oil that leaks into the cabin air from the engines.
And, as also came out of that inquiry, the jet oil most commonly used in commercial aviation contains a number of nasties — including an organophosphate called tricresyl phosphate (TCP), which is a known neurotoxin. TCP is by no means the only compound that can potentially cause fumes in passenger jet air, but it is the most concerning because of the symptoms the scientists say it can cause: headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of concentration, blurred vision, temporary paralysis and long-term neurological damage, chronic fatigue and chemical sensitivity.
SUNDAY last investigated the issue seven years ago in its popular cover story Air Sick. Much of our focus back then was on the notoriously faulty BAE146 passenger jets that were used extensively on Australian domestic routes, and many flight crew had were reported chronic health problems from fumes exposure.
But in the intervening seven years since that investigation, our scientific understanding of the issue has dramatically increased. As we reveal in our latest story, flight crew have been secretly swabbing the interiors of passenger aircraft all over the world to see if TCP and other neurotoxins are making it into the plane through faulty bleed air systems. The overwhelming evidence — independently verified by several respected scientists from US, Australia and Europe — is that the TCP is indeed getting into aircraft cabins.
University of NSW toxicologist Professor Chris Winder wants the aviation industry to fund research to see whether those levels of TCP being found are toxic. He has seen many affected flight crew over the last decade and he is concerned the industry does not want to confront the problem.
"The industry is in complete denial that this is an issue or that they need to worry about it," he says.
Dr Robert Haley is a US brain imaging specialist who has worked on many 1991 Gulf War veterans suffering from the symptoms of what's known as "Gulf War Syndrome". He has also begun researching the brain scans of air crew who have been exposed to fumes and he thinks there is now enough evidence to show a similar toxic illness in air crews as that which he has seen in veterans.
"It's probably time to start doing studies to understand this problem," he says. "The scientific technology for studying neurotoxic illness in air crews exists today and is being carried in the Gulf War illness research. What's lacking is just the political will to do it.
When SUNDAY raised concerns in its original Air Sick cover story seven years ago about the phenomenon of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), caused by blood clots due to lack of movement on long-haul flights, the aviation industry was still not routinely briefing passengers about the risk. Now it does.
Many scientists and doctors believe it is only a matter of time before the aviation industry is forced to acknowledge the threat posed by the uncommon but nonetheless very real threat of contaminants in aircraft air. All they want is proper research — and for passengers to be warned about the risk, however remote.
For more information on contaminated aircraft air issues:
SUNDAY was given permission by former Boeing 757 pilot Captain Tristan Loraine to use some of the interviews from his forthcoming documentary on contaminated air on planes. For more information about Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines the new documentary by Tristan Loraine and Fact Not Fiction Films, please visit www.welcomeaboardtoxicairlines.com or www.dftenterprises.com
For detailed information on the contaminated air issue, the first ever Aviation Contaminated Air Reference Manual has recently been published by former Australian pilot Susan Michaelis and is available at: www.dftenterprises.com
Additional sites offering information on these matters are: