Air Toxicity in Passenger Jets by Malcolm Steinberg

by Malcolm Steinberg
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
December 26, 2009

Patricia was 5 years old when her parents took her and her older brother on a vacation trip from Ireland to Florida [names have been changed to protect privacy]. Within a few hours of take-off, a number of people were feeling sick with similar symptoms: nausea, shortness of breath, sweating and headaches. Upon arrival in Florida, over 40 or so people would be suffering from these symptoms and those that followed. Uncommon in its extreme perhaps, but the story for those 40-odd people doesn’t end there. A number still suffer side effects including headaches and dizziness, but also measurable damage to the autonomic nervous system, impairment of short-term memory (just to name a few), damage which is physiological as shown in medical tests and on-going exams. The psychological effects are hard to measure, but are more pronounced in some than others.

Is this directly attributable to the air quality of that flight on which they were all passengers? Simply put, chemicals that interact with our lungs, our blood, our tissues leave a trace of their effect. Similar to a bullet fired from a gun being traceable back to the gun that fired it, chemicals entering the body show a footprint on how they affect the body. In a report released in 2005, research conducted at Duke University shows how an additive in jet engine lubricants (organophosphates) does damage to the brain tissues and chemistry, affecting the brain’s ability to transfer signals that control normal body functions in specific ways. And if these effects are happening in the brains of passengers and crew, the common source of this damage leads back to the additives in jet engine lubricants (also including some hydraulic fluids commonly used). And the effects of this poison delivery system have re-occurred time and again in airline crew and passengers like coal dust in miner’s lungs.

How does the chemical traceable to the oil additive get from the engine into the air of the airplane cabin? Traveling on a modern jet, one never wonders where the air comes from. It is just another means of transportation where people wait in line to sit cramped in tightly knit rows, the smell of the air is hardly thought of and rarely mentioned. What was once viewed as elite and luxurious has become quite pedestrian, and a mere necessity for time-saving transportation. Air is everywhere so why not have clean and fresh air while trying to enjoy the time before arriving at the destination? From pilots to passengers, there are two sources for air in a passenger plane: 1) the jet engine compression chamber, and 2) air recycled from the passenger cabin. One jet plane manufacturer claims it is roughly a 50/50 mix. At the rate of air exchange, logically it would not take long before most of the air in the cabin comes from the engine.

Why would air be taken from the engine? By design, the air comes through two intake ports within the engine, but before the combustion chamber. The air at this point is already heated to the point where it acts as a compressor, the heat pushing the air through ducts where it is cooled before being released into the cabin air space. Without the force of heated air, the manufacture of an airplane would cost more due to the need for a compressor. This has been the solution since passenger jets were first introduced. The ingenuity of using hot air to work as a compressor, saving money, and eliminating need for extra machinery made this the common solution for all manufacturers of passenger aircraft.

Among the possibilities of regular air induction are fume or smoke `events’ when leaks in the jet engine from hydraulic fluids and/or lubricating oils get burned. Between 1989 and 1999 there were 760 such incidents involving 900 flight attendants (the number of pilots, crew or passengers are not enumerated). More recent cataloging of these occurrences average over one hundred per year in the United States alone. Why does this not occur more often. That has at least two parts to answer: 1) how severe does the incident have to be to get recorded as an event, and 2) if people do not know how to correlate the symptoms of the poisoning occurrence, then how would they know the cause? If the passenger gets a mild headache, a queasiness of the stomach, slight dizziness or a temporary lapse of short term memory, who would think to realize that as being symptomatic of contaminated air? And how could it be proved?

Several legal current suits are in various stages of proceedings. As is well known, progress in courts can go on for years. As in the more extreme cases of the opening paragraph, medical exams and scientific research is turning up some disturbing news. Meanwhile, congress in their typically deliberate pace have heard reports over the years of the need for monitoring air quality on passenger aircraft. Only in the last couple of years has an operating association of airline officials and universities started the work collaboratively on this issue. To date, no air quality monitors have been used on any aircraft either while in service or in test conditions.

What is the chemical that causes the damage? The common denominator in all aircraft engines and origin of the problem is the frequently used oil lubricant additive TCP (tricresyl phosphate, part of the family of organophosphates, also contained in some in hydraulic fluids). What are organophosphates? The pesticide malathion is only one in a family of organophosphates which also include nerve gasses originally developed in Germany before WWII, tried for a while in extermination camps but never used on the battlefield. Perhaps the most famous nerve gas is sarin because a Japanese terrorist group used it twice, once in 1994 and again in 1995 in the Tokyo subway attack killing at least 12 people injuring between 3,800 to 6,000. Small amounts of sarin gas produce the same effects on the nervous system as the small amounts of organophosphates (TCP) on air crews and passengers. There are a number of pilots and flight attendants that have contracted the cumulative effects and symptoms of those affected by sarin gas.

There are numerous work place environments where people are exposed to these chemicals and their effects. Here again the common symptoms show themselves as evidence traceable to the same poisonous results. Why has nothing been to done to alleviate this problem? Ask this question: who would benefit from these petroleum products, specifically organophosphates, from being used in the first place? Who makes these products and who benefits from their use? Some might say we all benefit from their use. But if Patricia was your child, who would accept that as an answer?

2 thoughts on “Air Toxicity in Passenger Jets by Malcolm Steinberg

  1. Very informative. How much would it cost to add an air compressor to a passenger aircraft for pressurized cabin air? What type of liability are the airlines and jet manufacturers looking at in the pending law suits?

    Why have consumer protection laws been gutted? Who was to blame for that a eviscerating the US labor who were strong supporters of consumer protection laws?

    Great article Malcolm

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