A shortened version of this is in this week's Big Issue in the North magazine.
High levels of ill health amongst airline crew, including pilots, are compromising flight safety, according to the former British Airways cabin supervisor who is behind a comprehensive survey into crew health.
Dee Passon, who retired on ill-health grounds last year, believes many of the symptoms reported are the consequence of toxins released into aircraft during flights. It is a view that both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Department of Transport (DoT) dispute.
Open to crew from all major airlines, Passon’s on-line international survey was conducted anonymously in March 2009. Still then working, she feared being dismissed from her £50,000 a year post. Today she is forced to get by on 80% less income after failing to recover from what she claims was “chronic low level exposure from toxic or contaminated air containing engine oils or hydraulic fluids that have been heated to high temperatures and pressures within the aircraft engine or Auxiliary power unit and which enter the cabin with the air supply.”
A doctor’s diagnosis that Passon was suffering from aerotoxic syndrome was accepted by BA as grounds to pay an ill-health pension to the 54 year old, but she later dropped her legal case for compensation against the company saying, “it’s very difficult to prove an exact link between the cause and effect as the airlines refuse to install detection systems and so unless there’s smoke then detection relies on the crew’s smell.”
Passon’s analysis of the results of the first 1020 surveys – including 50 from pilots - completed by currently employed crew members from 24 countries was published recently in the Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry.
She also presented them at the Cranfield University seminar on ‘Inhalable Toxic Chemicals on board aircraft.’
23% of respondents reported they had taken no time off work due to illness. This figure was matched by those having taken time off for depression - this is more than double the national average. One-seventh had suffered from Crohn’s disease, with one-eighth reporting high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A tenth suffered from eczema, and similar figures were recorded for insomnia and migraine.
60 people - ten times higher than the UK National Average, reported Cancer. Sarcoidosis of the lungs was reported by two people; considerably greater than the UK average of 1 in 10,000 people. Meanwhile 380 of those surveyed reported symptoms of numbness and pins and needles in face, hands and feet.
A workforce concerned about their working environment was apparent from the accompanying comments including ‘being constantly sick’, ‘constant tiredness and lack of co-ordination’, ‘less stamina and needing prescribed antidepressants’ and ‘living in a state of constant confusion.’ In total 45% said they suffered from confusion, 50% had difficulty concentrating and 40% suffered from memory loss.
Passon concluded: “not only is crew health being adversely affected as a consequence of their occupational working environment but flight safety is being compromised.”
She wants chemical detectors fitted to all flight decks. Passon also wants all airlines to follow Icelandair by switching to a Nyco oil with lower toxicity. This would avoid the use of organophosphate (Ops) chemicals diagnosed as long ago as 1951 by leading British scientists as poisonous. Ops have been blamed for the high level of suicides amongst shepherds and for Gulf Way syndrome amongst soldiers who served in the first Gulf War.
The DoT and CAA, which regulates all aspects of aviation in the UK, disagree with Passon. A CAA spokesperson said: “Whilst noting the survey’s results, our view is that it has not been conducted in a scientific manner and that research to date has not identified evidence of exposure to chemicals that could potentially lead to long-term health affects.”
Both Government bodies pointed to a 2007 report from the Committee of Toxicity, composed of toxicologists from various universities. A DoT spokesperson said the study “concluded that the evidence available did not establish a link between cabin and pilot ill health, without ruling out one.”
Further research on five different aircraft types and undertaken by Cranfield University and by the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh had said the spokesperson “shown no evidence for target pollutants occurring in the cabin air levels exceeding available health and safety standards.”
Furthermore, only 207 contaminated air events had been reported to the CAA out of 1.12 million cargo flights by UK carriers last year. Few passengers had reported becoming ill, with only 244 written medical complaints in the last ten years. Filters were unnecessary, as it was not known what particular substance needed to be filtered out, said the spokesperson.
The studies appear to have convinced a previously sceptical opposition Conservative Party. Four years, Theresa Villiers, now transport secretary, called for “a full public enquiry to ensure the air we breathe in aeroplanes is truly safe.” That demand has now been dropped.
Former airline pilot John Hoyte, who retired seriously ill aged 50 in 2005 and later established the Aerotoxic Association at a Parliamentary meeting in 2007, criticised the Cranfield research.
“It was funded by the airline industry itself and it failed to release data of any fume event that they created which exceeded health and safety limits.”
Hoyte referred me to a passenger who had taken a family holiday in Tenerife last year. Karen Isherwood of Lowton, Warrington, a business coach and mother of three children, has since struggled to complete her part-time MBA and plans to launch a new business have been put on hold.
She reports being healthy on boarding the outward plane, only to find herself feeling dizzy on landing and “hearing voices as if I was coming round from anaesthetic. I had a really racing heart and I felt like things were going off inside my head. I kept saying I was all right before I got on the plane.”
A local doctor diagnosed her with having had mini-seizures of the brain, but when the medication he diagnosed failed to provide any relief she was admitted to hospital where a brain scan led to a consultant telling Karen the nerves in her brain had been damaged and that recovery would take six months. Since returning to Britain, Karen has visited a neurologist and a cardiologist. Both have been unable to offer her a diagnosis.
Karen is now “Feeling a lot better, but only when not doing a great deal. Any stress and I again feel I am having these mini-seizures in my head. I am firmly convinced that my illness was due to something on the plane.”
As is Dave, not his real name, an experienced pilot from the North West who is facing retirement on ill health grounds. From an early age he had wanted to be a pilot, describing it as “a highly skilled job which I love as there’s a real sense of achievement in handling a machine that weighs over 200 tons at take-off and in which you have 300 people sitting in the back.” Further rewards were a six-figure salary and a chance to visit most places in the world.
“As a pilot you have a rigorous health check annually but I visited my own doctor to see if I was showing the first stages of Alzheimer’s.
I wasn’t but since when my condition has not improved and I often forget things and people’s names” explains Dave, whose doctor signed him on the sick without offering a diagnosis.
Having seen his doctor’s report the CAA is currently not issuing Dave with a licence and he expects never to return to work. Fortunately he worked for one of the biggest airline companies in the world and will receive a generous retirement package that is not available to pilots employed by the low cost jet companies.
Dave recalls an incident a decade ago when the aircraft he was flying had to be aborted on takeoff as it filled with fumes. However he feels his own problems may have been caused by the walking visual inspections he was required to undertake on landing.
“It was usual to see smoke burning residual oil out of the engines. You could not avoid breathing at least some of this in,” said the pilot.
It is a problem he believes has worsened as airline companies, desperate to cut costs by using less fuel, use more oil to run engines at hotter temperatures.
Dave won’t be making a fuss for “fear of damaging my chances of getting compensation, as I know that if I say this has anything to do with aerotoxins the company will deny it as it may lead to passengers coming forward with claims.” He does however intend bringing the condition to his doctor’s attention and he worries about having met other pilots with similar symptoms.