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Toxic fumes impairing our ability to fly, say pilots

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June 19, 2007
Zeeya Merali

Toxic fumes on planes are poisoning pilots and rendering them unable to fly safely, say pilots, who are campaigning for "aerotoxic syndrome" to be recognised as a disease.

Two official investigations are being opened after concerns that highly toxic fuel contaminants are leaking into cabin air supply on commercial airliners in flight. The UK government is to fit air-monitoring equipment on board aircraft amid increasing concerns that passengers, pilots and cabin crew are being exposed. And 1500 pilots will take part in the first major health study designed to establish the extent of the problem.

"We're basically the canaries – getting knocked down by the fumes first," says Susan Michaelis, a former pilot who believes she was poisoned by fumes from leaked engine fuel while flying. She and other grounded pilots launched a campaign for the condition to be recognised, at a meeting at the UK's Houses of Parliament on 18 June.

Compressed air is routinely drawn off engines and supplied to aircraft cabins. If the seal inside the engine is not secure, engine oil can leak into the cabin and contaminating air with toxic tricresyl phosphate (TCP), says Michaelis.

Dirty socks

Michaelis, who is currently at the University of New South Wales, Australia, carried out a survey of 250 pilots and found that 85% had detected contaminated air – which smells like "dirty socks" – while flying. Of these, 57% reported symptoms of ill health relating to the incident, and 8% had to be retired on health grounds.

Michaelis believes that the long term effects of prolonged exposure are largely overlooked by airline companies. Symptoms related to long term exposure purportedly include neurological and respiratory problems, memory loss, difficulties with speech, and chronic fatigue.

"Passengers should be made aware that the pilot's ability to fly is being impaired," says Michaelis. One affected pilot reportedly fell asleep in a flight simulator after exposure in a real aircraft, and was told he was unfit for flight.

"Everybody recognises that there are incidents where fumes enter cabins," says Jonathon Nicholson, a spokesperson for the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). "But we will not take any action until it is proven that the leaked fuel causes long term health effects."

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