One of the disappointing aspects of the heroic battle by cabin crew at British Airways over the last two years was that it scuppered a planned health questionnaire that the trade union, Unite, was planning to undertake amongst its members.
The survey, organised because of fears that the aviation industry has failed to tackle contaminated air problems within aircraft, was going to be the largest of its’ kind organised anywhere in the world so far.
It was planned after a former BA cabin service director and Unite member revealed alarmingly high levels of sickness amongst 900 airline staff who responded to her requests for information.
Fearing the sack by going public Dee Passon asked people to complete an on-line questionnaire. Her actions were a response to becoming ill herself from “chronic low level exposure from toxic or contaminated air such that my doctor diagnosed me with aerotoxic syndrome, and which the company has accepted as the reason for my retirement on ill-health grounds from a job I expected to continue doing for many more years.” Especially as it has meant her income has slumped from £50,000 a year to just over £600 a month, a drop of over 80%.
Passon’s poor health meant she was missing when Unite’s central London office played host to the Annual Global Cabin Air Quality Executive [GCAQE] Forum in May last year. This is a global coalition of health and safety advocates committed to raising awareness and finding solutions to poor air quality in aircraft. Unite, along with bodies such as the German Airline Pilots Association and the American Communication Workers Union, is one of twenty international unions working together within GCAQE.
After warmly welcoming delegates Brendan Gold, Unite national secretary for civil air transport said; “the issue of air quality in aircraft is one of the most critical health and safety aspects facing the aviation industry.”
Contaminated air contains engine oils and hydraulic fluids that have been heated to high temperatures and pressures within the engine or Auxiliary power unit and which enter the cabin with the supply air. The union had received reports from members, working on all aircraft types, of contaminated air events during which the fumes may contain carbon monoxide gas and/or neurotoxic chemicals such as TCP.
TCP is an organophosphate [OP], which as long ago as 1951 were examined on behalf of the government by leading British scientists. Led by Professor Solly Zuckerman they discovered exposure could produce a multiplicity of symptoms including memory loss, depression and schizophrenia. They recommended that products containing OP’s be labeled ‘deadly poison.’ The failure not to do so has been cited by shepherds, as part of a campaign backed by Unite agricultural sector members, as being behind the ‘suicides’ of more than a thousand shepherds in the last decade.
Verifying a contaminated air event isn’t easy. GCAQE co-chair Tristan Loraine is a former pilot forced by the Civil Aviation Authority [CAA] to retire on ill health grounds after suffering recurring problems with numbness in his fingers and feet, sickness and crippling headaches whilst flying. At one point he was forced to use the emergency oxygen supply as he struggled to land a plane safely.
He said “It’s because the airlines refuse, despite having them for many other safety problems such as fire and air traffic collisions, to install detection systems. It means except where smoke can be clearly seen detection relies on the crew’s smell.” Sweaty socks appear to be the closest description, unpleasant enough but the long-term health effects can’t be so easily washed away.
This becomes apparent from Dee Passon’s results which revealed she said: “staff in their 20s suffering from tremors and neurological problems resulting in numbness and concentrations difficulties, including amongst pilots which must be a real concern for anyone who flies or works in the aviation industry.”
Passon’s results are supported by Susan Michaelis’s work. The GCAQE researcher is another pilot forced to retire on ill-health grounds after repeatedly feeling unwell at work from what engineers told her was oil fumes in the air supply system.
In 2009 Michaelis, after the CAA refused to help, was able to reach 275 pilots with BALPA’s assistance. Half reported health problems; of which a third had medium to long-term concerns about fatigue and 13% had long-term ill health problems or had been medically retired.
It was because the airline companies were refusing to officially acknowledge there is a problem that Unite had planned the survey with a Unite safety rep at BA, who didn’t want to be named for fear of possible victimisation, saying “they hoped to demonstrate that contaminated air is impacting heavily on workers health. Really we shouldn’t need to have to do this, as an air filtration system on each plane would only cost between ten and twenty thousand pounds.“
Meanwhile GCAQE has financially supported vital research in the USA. Washington University’s Professor Clem Furlong’s research team have worked tirelessly developing a blood test that will allow crewmembers and passengers to prove engine oil exposure by being able to identify enzymes in the blood that get ‘decorated’ from TCPs.
As this ground breaking research, which will also have major implications for other Op sufferers including shepherds and soldiers with gulf war syndrome, moves towards a conclusion the GCAQE has stepped up its lobbying of the European Union, pointing out that it’s not only cabin crew being affected. It has challenged EU research projects, which have cost more than £50 million, and believes that increasing numbers of MEP’s are listening carefully to its opinions.
The organisation wants all new aeroplanes to follow the new Boeing 787 model with its air filtration system that prevents contaminated air entering the aircraft. GCAQE is convinced this was developed as a response to growing media attention resulting from their research and intensive campaigning work with unions across the world.
“We welcome the Boeing 787 and it was great to learn from the GCAQE conference that one oil company, NYCO, are seeking to develop a less toxic oil. But, and it’s a big if, there are still thousands of planes where problems remain. Filtration systems need introducing, detection systems are a must and when an incident occurs then staff and passengers should be made aware so that they can seek medical treatment from specialist doctors. Staff have already been left unwell and in some cases forced to retire on ill-health grounds, and they should be compensated” said Tristan Loraine.
“It’s vital to get airline companies and governments to act to protect cabin crew and passengers “ said Dee Passon.
My story by a former airline pilot
I wanted to be a pilot from the age of four. All my life I have read aviation books, followed war time heroes and vowed to be ‘one of the few’.
Little did I realise that I would stumble across ‘The Best kept secret in aviation’ and in doing so, understand exactly how Charles Darwin felt about my publishing this story.
First I became a private pilot, soloed on my twenty first birthday, a flying instructor teaching others and then I flew aerial crop spraying and aerial fire fighting aircraft around the world – trying to help mankind.
I had worked out that ultra low flying was fundamentally dangerous, so, as I had got married I decided to fly safer aircraft – passenger jet airliners. Or so I would think.
Briefly I flew Dakotas and became a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ as I patrolled the North Sea looking for oil tankers washing out their bilges. I would also witness the last moments of oil-rig Piper Alpha.
In 1989 I trained to become a four engined jet BAe 146 pilot. My first job was night flying parcels around Europe, still exciting for a thirty four year old man but little did I think it would literally - destroy my once good health.
It wasn’t long before I started to experience odd neurological problems, lights flashing in supermarket ceilings, brain fog, a distance between other mates and an intolerance of alcohol.
I actually felt intoxicated - all of the time.
In everyday language – depression and confusion.
Pilots are very rational, ‘can do’ people - so I logically worked out that it must have something to do with starting work at 2000 and finishing at 0600. I didn’t go to my GP as I knew he would have diagnosed me as doing the ‘wrong job’.
As it was the early 1990’s I concluded that I must have BSE / CJD as my memory had ‘gone’, a permanent echo in my head, speech was slurred and many other awful symptoms. I should mention that I am a really healthy guy with a long lived family and despite my previous crop spraying was never, ever ill. Let alone sudden weird neurological disorders.
By 1998 I was ready to quit my night flying job and transfer to day flying. I was sure I had early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s but told nobody as it was clearly - invisible.
Unfortunately my memory was so bad by this time that I couldn’t even learn a new aircraft type, so I kept on flying the BAe 146 – the one the Royal Family also used.
Day flying suited me initially, pretty hostesses to work with, good food and daylight. But still the awful handicap that I had by then - for ten long years.
In 2001 I was filmed for 45 minutes whilst lecturing other pilots. Their harsh criticism of my poor speech and ‘non words’ would really worry me. Anybody can see a spaced out, vegetable state pilot even now, as it is captured on DVD.
By 2004 I was ready to stop. I knew now that I was seriously ill and looked for ways to discontinue flying at the tender age of 49. I eventually walked off a flight just prior to take off; I knew that if I flew to an Austrian airfield in the Alps I would probably kill not only me but also my passengers.
I took 3 months ‘off’ flying totally confused with the aviation doctors explaining that I had ‘Battle of Britain fatigue’ and needed ‘rest’.
I was acutely aware by now of the awful toll that so called ‘low cost flying’ was having on the industry. If the passengers really knew what was going on, they would pay more.
I went back to flying part time but only lasted 6 more months before I would walk off another flight not knowing that I had done my last ever as an airline Captain.
I needed six months off this time before a Professor of Aviation Medicine grounded me for good with ‘chronic stress’ – I don’t do stress. What could be wrong?
In early 2006 another pilot from the Union BALPA had invited me to have some routine tests by University College London. They found that 27 out of 27 pilots (me included) had highly abnormal amounts of chemicals in our bodies and we also had marked cognitive dysfunction.
By now I was beginning to smell a bit of a rat and would soon realise that many, many other aircrew had experienced what I had been through – no two being exactly the same, obviously.
By May 2006 I had worked out that the air in the BAe 146 could become toxic and affected anybody who breathed it repeatedly, passengers included.
The way it works is that in 1963 the aviation industry had found out that by using the compressed air from a jet engine, they could save money by piping it into the passenger compartment. The fact is that the air and oil can mix and another fact is that they put organophosphate (OP) chemicals in to the jet oil – it makes the engines last longer.
Organophosphates were designed by the Nazis to kill human nerves, so it wasn’t surprising to find that the same chemicals had had a similar effect on my body.
In 2006 there was a movement by other affected pilots ‘to do something about it’ – as pilots are taught to identify the problem and then find solutions.
My solution was to warn other aircrew and passengers who were experiencing the same problems. I knew straight away that it was a massive issue and needed some brave, simple logic to sort it out.
It was in June 2006 that my pilot friend (not a doctor) rang me to tell me I had something called Aerotoxic Syndrome – this had been termed in 1999 but as it was a serious threat to the aviation industry it was belittled by vested interest doctors, including the Professor who had grounded me a matter of weeks earlier.
I immediately decided to form an Association to help others, spread the word and to bring about the urgent, simple technical fixes which could save so much serious ill health.
The Aerotoxic Association was born on 18th June 2007 at the House of Parliament.
Suddenly I was meeting many other victims and with our brain damage we were slowly building the logic behind our dark secret. We would make enemies with the Government, oil companies, aircraft manufacturers and airlines – all of whom knew that they had a big health scandal on their hands but felt that slow progress over many years was the best way to address the issue.
What they failed to understand was that with the power of the internet, other people were beginning to question the cause of their ill health after flying – but these people would not be the aircrew but their customers, who breathed the same contaminated cabin air.
So what have I learnt over the last few years?
That many aircrew lose their health within a few years of starting flying.
The medical profession go out of their way to misidentify and misdiagnose organophosphate poisoning, which has affected the sheep farmers and Gulf war veterans.
Aerotoxic Syndrome is the fundamental cause of many people’s ill health around the world.
The logic is simple. If you herd masses of people into a confined space, supposedly ‘having a good time’, pump that space full of invisible OP fumes, even at very low concentrations – it will wreck their genes and turn them into GM Passengers.
So that is how I identified so called ‘Jet lag’ – it is of course due to changing time zones but also simple toxic chemical poisoning.
Gas chambers, all over again.
The one big problem of having memory problems is that one never tells lies. In this way I have been able to present the facts to the BBC and many others. It would appear that they don’t believe us. Even our families don’t ‘get it’ and just want us to forget it and move on; but how after losing nearly 20 years of health?
Unsurprisingly, there are several other experts working on the issue around the world and 2010 will be the year when the already sceptical flying public hear the word Aerotoxic and demand clean air from the airlines.
The Aerotoxic Association has run for nearly three years now, I have lost my marriage due to the incredible pressure but every day I hear from other people with almost identical health problems.
As I am such a fit fellow, luckily by mid 2007 my health almost totally reverted back to how it had been in 1989.
I am determined to use my second chance to bring this issue to the others and to help those especially who can not speak for themselves – children.
I know exactly how Charles Darwin felt and will publish my true story, even if it kills me.
Chairman Aerotoxic Associationjohn@aerotoxic.org
T / F: +44 (0) 1295 770808
Company Number: 6168333
Registered at BM Aerotoxic Association, London, WC1N 3XX
T / F: +44 (0) 1295 770808
Company Number: 6168333
Registered at BM Aerotoxic Association, London, WC1N 3XX
For further information about Aerotoxic Association http://www.aerotoxic.org/