Aerotoxic Syndrome? Whatever in the world is that?
Up until last year’s report by Atlanta’s own global news network CNN that landed Ayesha Durgahee the coveted “Business Travel News Journalist of the Year” award covering this passenger health hazard, U.S. air travelers were largely unaware of the potential dangers of breathing in toxic fumes on commercial jet aircraft. We are thankful to Ms. Durgahee for her honest and courageous reporting on this serious topic, but few realize that it was former grassroots airline employee whistleblowers and their organizations in the United Kingdom and elsewhere who must also receive our thanks for their tenacity and courage for exposure on behalf of the millions who travel by commercial air each day.
Little reported in the U.S. mainstream media, this health hazard has been widely reported in the international media thanks largely to the global grassroots efforts of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, Aerotoxic.org, and ToxicFreeAirlines.com in the UK with the able assistance of Kate Hanni, the executive director of FlyersRights.org. and her group, as well as the Whistleblowing Airline Employees Association and the global health organization Medical Whistleblower (to be profiled in a subsequent article).
Aerotoxic Syndrome Background
Most air travelers give little thought about how a commercial jet aircraft is pressurized with temperature-controlled air being extracted from the aircraft engine compressor section cycled through what is known as the air cycle cooling machine. With the potential of engine oil leakage, such as could occur with a loose or broken oil seal on the engine, most would be alarmed to learn that this aircraft engine air is not filtered prior to entering the cabin for passengers to breathe. Sometimes this phenomenon appears as a ‘mist’ in the cabin that is oft times dismissed as water condensation such as one observes from a normal air conditioning system; other times it goes largely unnoticed. Amongst those researching this topic, this ‘aerotoxic mist’ is known in the industry as a ‘fume event’.
Common symptoms of Aerotoxic Syndrome, which can cause chronic brain, liver and other physiological damages that often go undiagnosed for years due to limited knowledge of this ailment by health care professionals, that include fatigue, blurred or tunnel vision, shaking and tremors, vertigo, seizures, and a whole host of other ailments to be discussed shortly. Very few air travelers seldom meet again as they depart an aircraft, leaving victims believing that perhaps the meal served on the aircraft and/or jet lag may be responsible for their illness leaving them to believe other causes for their physical malady.
At present, airlines offer no protection to passengers for this potential health threat that at times causes permanent neurological damage even though the first known and reported event occurred in 1977. Consequently, the next generation commercial jet aircraft do not employ engine air for breathing and air conditioning, which should give a clue as to aircraft manufacturers acknowledgement of this problem. But what of the many thousands of aircraft now carrying millions of passengers daily around the world have exposed them to this threat without their awareness?
Telling Signs of a ‘Fume Event’
Those passengers who have experienced a ‘fume event’ describe a bluish haze or smoke in the cabin with attendant odors such as sweaty socks, wet dog, or a sweet oily smell, but presently there is no onboard cabin air quality monitor to detect the level of contamination. Why not?
In accordance with Federal Aviation Regulation requirements, for many years cockpits have been configured with devices to warn pilots of loss of cabin air pressurization, engine fire or failure, air conditioning temperature, and a host of other warnings. Pilots breathe in the same unfiltered air as passengers and an undetected ‘fume event’ could very easily render both pilots incapacitated in flight that could obviously impact the safety of the passengers.
Enter Airline Flight Attendant Unions
This aircraft health hazard went largely unnoticed in the U.S. mainstream media but has been reported for years in the international media until April 2007 when flight attendant Terry Williams sued Boeing and McDonald Douglas claiming that she was a victim of Aerotoxic Syndrome. Subsequently, CNN’s Allan Chernoff reported on eight passengers and air crew of UsAir flight 1041 who became very ill due to an engine oil seal leak resulting in an ambulance meeting the aircraft upon arrival. Follow-on reporting by CNN’s Ayesha Durgahee landed her with thecoveted “Business Travel News Journalist of the Year” award for exposing this health hazard, which in part resulted in an inclusion of an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Bill designed to address this problem.
With awareness of this health hazard as early as 1977, why did it take the U.S. congress over 34 years to address this aviation health and safety issue? How long were the health hazards of cigarettes smoking concealed from the public before action was taken by our congress to address this health issue? Reflecting on tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, whose tragic story was chronicled in the movie ‘The Insider’, perhaps the answer lies there…money.
Global Cabin Air Quality Executive
Former British Airways 757 captain turned author/film producer-director and president of Facts Not Fiction Films (Welcome Aboard Toxic Free Airlines) Tristan Lorraine, who is co-chairman with Association of Flight Attendants Industrial Hygienist Judith Murawski, has worked for years with former Australian Captain Susan Michaelis and PhD researcher who has authored the most comprehensive manual every published on this serious air safety health risk, ‘Aviation Contaminated Air Reference Manual’. Together, in coordination with numerous other global grassroots groups, they have created the largest such group in the world, the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE). With both captains Lorraine and Michaelis being victims of Aerotoxic Syndrome themselves, this grassroots effort serves to heighten the traveling public’s awareness to this hazard as reflected in the mission statement on their website:
“A global coalition of health and safety advocates committed to raising awareness and finding solutions to poor air quality in aircraft.”
A forthcoming Facts Not Fiction Films production ‘Angel without Wings’ will soon be released globally.
Former medically-retired BA 146 Captain and Aerotoxic Syndrome victim John Hoyte has dedicated his retirement years to selflessly assist other sufferers of this health ailment as executive director of UK-based Aerotoxic.org. Working in concert with aerotoxic groups such as GCAQE and others, his efforts were highly instrumental in bringing this health risk to light in the U.S. mainstream media last year. Please take the time to listen to the sad story of Captain Hoyte’s tragic conclusion to his long aviation career and join his global grassroots effort.
Through coordination of efforts with the above organizations, another UK-based organization created by a former British Airways flight attendant, ToxicFreeAirlines.com, maintains a website in an effort to collect statistics on those airline aircrew members who may have been exposed to a ‘fume event’ or are suffering from Aerotoxic Syndrome via a survey being conducted online via their website. Unfortunately, this organization has not been successful in validating data collected on airline passengers. If you are an aircrew member or passenger suffering from Aerotoxic Syndrome, please take the time to visit this site in support of their efforts.
Where Do Airline Pilot Unions Stand on this Issue?
Airline captains Tristane Lorraine, Susan Michaelis, and John Hoyte have blown the whistle to alert global air passengers and aircrew of this health hazard that tragically ended their careers while destroying their health and welfare. The Air Line Pilots Association, the largest airline pilot union in the world has been aware of this health risk to cockpit crews for many years, but have not decried airline managers intransigence in stonewalling this serious issue, as they continue to demand improvements in work rules involving crew fatigue issues.
The first paragraphs of the Air Line Pilots Association Code of Ethics thus states:
An Air Line Pilot will keep uppermost in his mind that the safety, comfort, and well-being of the passengers who entrust their lives to him are his first and greatest responsibility.
• He will never permit external pressures or personal desires to influence his judgment, nor will he knowingly do anything that could jeopardize flight safety.
• He will remember that an act of omission can be as hazardous as a deliberate act of commission, and he will not neglect any detail that contributes to the safety of his flight, or perform any operation in a negligent or careless manner.
Since September 11, 2001, airline pilot and other unions have become powerless in speaking out on safety and security issues within the airline industry. Given that federal whistleblowers enjoy less than a 2% probability of success in speaking out on behalf of the traveling public as was evidenced in the Colgan Air 3407 accident in Buffalo, New York in February 2009, is it any wonder why career airline pilots remain silent as they board aircraft each day knowing full well of this inherent danger? Legal, political and financial pressures since 9/11 have forced professional airline pilots to compromise their integrity each day while they turn the proverbial blind eye to health, safety, and security issues.
Most airline managers monitor aircrew sick list usage in search of abusive use of this contractually-provided benefit that was provided to ensure that no pilot or flight attendant would report for work in less than a healthful condition. Federal Aviation regulations mandate this requirement, while some airlines have employed ‘hostile work environment forced medical groundings’ of pilot whistlblowers who have spoken out in the past. In 2008, United Airlines even went so far as to impose a federal court injunction against the Air Line Pilots Association at that airline for abusing sick list, which places added pressure to pilots who are truly ill, but risk termination for calling in sick for a trip. Given these work conditions, is it any wonder why airline managers have been successful in concealing the health risks imposed by air toxicity on commercial jet aircraft, a problem first identified in 1977? How many passengers presently suffer from undiagnosed or misdiagnosed symptoms of this ailment?
Inquiring minds such as Captains Lorraine, Michaelis, Hoyte and many others are trying to answer that very question as they continue their quest to inform all air travelers on the planet, while providing information to identified sufferers of this ailment. It is because of the selfless and dedicated effort of these wonderful individual heroes while working in concert with the grassroots groups such as Kate Hanni’s FlyersRights.org, Medical Whistleblower, other groups and bold mainstream media reporters that this issue has been brought to public awareness and congressional action in the United States.
Our hats go off to Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, Aerotoxic.org, ToxicFreeAirlines.com for their initiative, courage and tenacity in protecting the millions who travel by commercial air each day. The Whistleblowing Airline Employees Association International membership and other organizations continue to scratch their heads as to why it took over 34 years for congress to address this serious issue as we await for enhancements in whistleblower protection for employees as promised by President Obama during his 2008 election campaign.
Grassroots efforts have served a very useful purpose in American society. Our very own American revolution was essentially a grassroots effort. Where have the real airline pilots gone? In his first term in office, President George W. Bush proclaimed labor union strikes to be a thing of the past. Given that the airline captain serves as the ultimate one-way safety check valve in the system, are airline pilot unions a thing of the past?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Meade
Captain Dan Hanley is on facebook @ ‘Daniel William Hanley’ and on Twitter @DanHanley1. Listen to his archived Whistleblowing Airline Employees Blog Talk Radio interviews of whistleblowers for additional information.