Airline pilot campaigns to combat contaminated cabin air danger
by Graham Findlay
A Birmingham airline pilot claims he was forced to abandon his career after being poisoned by in-flight toxic fumes which threaten the health of passengers and crew.
Tony Watson, aged 43, an Avro RJ100 pilot based at Birmingham Airport, was forced to stop flying in 2007 after he became ill with “Aerotoxic Syndrome”.
Until he fell ill, he says he was unaware of the extent to which cabin air, contaminated by oil fumes, could be a health hazard.
Since then, he has been helping to compile an on-line dossier of evidence of information on incidents, victims’ case studies, political debate, industry comment and global news reports of toxic fume poisoning in jet aircraft. It can be found at www.aerotoxic.org
In April, an Australian air stewardess won a landmark case, but only token damages, for an incident in 1992 when she inhaled “a thick cloud of smoke” causing serious long-term ill-health. She was five months pregnant at the time.
Mr Watson, who lives in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, has been following the case of Joanne Turner for the last three years and is now hopeful the result will lead to a fair hearing for sufferers of Aerotoxic Syndrome in the UK .
He said: “I looked at taking legal action myself in 2008after my medical tests showed that my illness was caused by toxic cabin air, but the lawyers didn’t want to know at the time. However, following the Australian case, the time may now be right for sufferers to get redress.”
The Aerotoxic Organisation’s Campaign for Safe Cabin Air claims gases can be released into the confined cabin when engine oil seals wear out, or after power changes, as all the air in modern jet is drawn off the high pressure “bleed air” of the jet engine in what is known in the industry as a “fume event”.
Joanne Turner, the Australian Flight Attendant, originally won her claim in April 2010, but BAE the aircraft manufacturer appealed at the last minute, which sent it to the High Court for a final judgement.
This case has set a crucial legal precedent. University of New South Wales Toxicologist, Professor Chris Winder, one of three international scientists from Australia, US and France who helped to coin the term ‘Aerotoxic Syndrome’ in 1999 to describe the serious ill health effects seen in both aircrew and passengers, said: “The decision could be used by others.”
Aerotoxic Syndrome affects the central nervous system. It can cause confusion, chronic fatigue, speech difficulties, memory problems often summarised as leaving aircrew feeling, “permanently intoxicated”, “zombie like” or in a “vegetable state”.
Capt John Hoyte, Chairman of the Aerotoxic Association, said: “If people breathe toxic oil fumes in the confines of a jet it can cause serious ill health, just like tobacco smoking, in some people.
“Fume incidents are recorded monthly by the official Mandatory Occurrence Reports and the resulting ill health on aircrew – some long term and seriously debilitating – noted.
“Sufferers have been completely denied the opportunity of an aerotoxic legal hearing in the UK in the past but, as a result of the Joanne Turner case, there is hope that fairer solutions could be brought in for future.
“The Aerotoxic Association believes the aviation industry has been well aware of the design flaw for many years but it will be only when the public understand the issue and demand changes that the possibility of toxic fumes in jet aircraft will be eliminated.”
Plane-makers Boeing identified the issue at about the same time that Aerotoxic Syndrome was first identified in 1999 and have chosen to dump “bleed air” in their new aircraft.
The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner has two nostril-like holes in each wing root, where fresh outside air is sucked in. This is a return to how the earliest jets were ventilated in the 1950s and Boeing claim their new aircraft is more environmentally efficient. A record 950 Dreamliners were sold before its first flight.
University College London claims around 196,000 passenger a year (500 per day) could be suffering the effects of toxic exposures but their GPs frequently misdiagnose the illness and mistreat the victims with anti-depressants or antibiotics.