After 25 years of flying, Dee Passon was diagnosed with a slew of health conditions that were ultimately caused by toxic fumes.
Have you heard of Aerotoxic Syndrome?
For 16 years, between 1979 and 1995, I worked for British Airways, Air Europe, Britannia Airways, and a private jet company as part of the cabin crew. I flew on various planes, including Boeing 747 and 777 aircrafts, to glamorous long haul destinations. It was the perfect job, one week I was shopping in Singapore, the next lying on a beach in the Bahamas.
Unhealthy Holding Patterns
In 1994, I trained as an aerobics instructor, was fit, healthy, and had lots of energy. After a career break I returned to flying in January 1996 with British Airways on short haul at Heathrow. Later that same year I was called from standby to operate a flight where the previous crew and dispatcher had all been taken to the hospital with breathing difficulties. A passenger on this flight told me he was a paramedic and could smell something like tear gas. I wasn’t aware of the smell but after the flight I developed a persistent cough that would not go away.
Over the next 12 years, my health steadily declined. My medical notes record frequent bouts of gastroenteritis, swollen lymph glands, sore throats, chest infections, abnormal lung sounds, fatigue, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, anemia, mood swings, hot flashes, and chest and neck pain. Yet three tests for Glandular Fever were negative.
Was the job I loved so much slowly killing me with Aerotoxic Syndrome?
In 2005, at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of breast cancer called High Grade. I was being treated for cancer but strangely, during the eight months away from flying, I felt better.
The first time alarm bells began to ring and I linked my occupation with my symptoms was when I was greeted by the oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. When he found out what I did for a living he told me, “You are my eighth lady from British Airways this week.”
In February 2006, following a lumpectomy, a partial mastectomy, and six weeks of radiotherapy, I returned to long haul flying. Colds and flu, lasting for several weeks at a time, severe headaches, bouts of gastroenteritis and swollen glands returned. I felt constantly tired and stressed.
My mood swings were becoming more pronounced and irrational – my daughter called them my “psycho days.” On several occasions she commented that I was a different person when I was on holiday and away from work. I started seeing an osteopath for the pins and needles and numbness in my left leg and pain in both forearms. He said I had no reflexes down my left side and was on the verge of a total physical breakdown. I noticed my abdomen felt strange and numb. Texting was becoming difficult as I kept getting my letters in the wrong order.
When I’d measured my IQ, I was in the top 1 percent of the country. Now, thinking was becoming difficult and I was struggling to cope. I felt as though my brain was divided into different compartments and I had to search through each one to find information I needed. The only reason I was able to still do my job was because I had been doing it for so long. I was on automatic pilot.
On one flight, on a 777 from Heathrow to Fort Worth, Dallas, we had a lady yelling at the top of her voice about everything her poor husband had done wrong during their marriage. Looking back, I believe we had a fume event that day. I knew putting her on oxygen would help and I can remember standing in front of her not knowing how to do it despite my 20 years of experience.
On another flight, I felt very strange with pins and needles in my face. I was lightheaded and dizzy. I rang the crew members working at the rear of the aircraft and they all described the same symptoms. When I looked in the mirror, I noticed that my lips were blue; I reported this to the captain several times but he assured me that the oxygen and pressurization on the aircraft were fine.
Eventually a cabin crew member collapsed in the cabin and had to be put on oxygen. Only then did the captain agree to fill in an Air Safety Report. On disembarkation a seasoned flier told me he had never felt like that before and believed there was something wrong with the air on that flight.
On another 767 back from Accra, a passenger vomited in the aisles, unable to make it to the toilet. Then someone projectile vomited all over the rear galley. A total of eight passengers became sick on that flight and I, too, became ill after I got home.
I spoke to all of the passengers to try to figure out the common denominator. Some had not eaten so I suspected the water might be to blame. I filed an Incident Report and asked for the water on the aircraft to be tested for contaminants. Later when I found out about contaminated air, I tracked down that report. It had been edited to make it sound like the passengers were suffering from airsickness and stamped “Further Investigation Not Required.”
Aerotoxic Syndrome: Sick And Then Sacked
In September 2007, I developed a cold that only disappeared for one week when I was on leave, but as soon as I went back to work it returned. At the end of the year, I flew from Tokyo to London on a 747. During this flight, the First Class purser (chief flight attendant) asked if she could lie down; she said she had never felt so ill on an aircraft before. As the flight went on more crew members began developing flu-like symptoms. Two days later, I too became ill with a flu, which gradually turned into pneumonia.
I did not respond to antibiotics, and on the sixth day I was afraid that I would die if I lied down. After six weeks I returned to work, although I was still suffering from extreme fatigue and a feeling of being disconnected from reality. I tried to eat healthy and increased the amount of exercise I did. I do not smoke and I had given up alcohol and caffeine. Two weeks later, after a flight to Phoenix on the 747 aircraft, I was woken at 2 a.m. with an excruciating headache and vomited for 12 hours.
After landing back at Heathrow, I discovered my right arm wouldn’t grip the steering wheel and I had to drive home with one hand. I dropped everything I tried to pick up; the muscles were no longer working properly. In March 2008 I traveled to Cape Town. On final approach a smoke detector in one of the toilets was activated for no apparent reason. It was officially linked with condensation but I now believe it was set off by fumes.
The next day, one of the pursers was ill and remained in his room. On the return flight we were required by law to perform pre take-off disinsection. This involved four crew members walking the length of the aircraft slowly spraying poisonous pyrethroid pesticides right above the passengers’ heads. I have since found out that exposure to this spray destroys liver enzymes needed for detoxification. This means that you can have a more acute reaction if you are also exposed to aircraft fumes.
On the flight back, several arguments broke out among the crew; I even had to step in between two crew members to prevent them from getting physical. After the flight I was confused and unable to calculate my crew’s overtime hours so I had to turn in the paperwork blank.
I thought I must just be very tired despite the fact it was a day flight and I hadn’t been up all night. Two days later I woke up in agony with the worst all over my body nerve pain I’ve ever experienced. I was not capable of picking up the phone to call in sick, I couldn’t even work out how to change the TV channels with the remote control. I was completely mystified as to what had happened to me until I went for a walk one day and saw a headline in a British newspaper: Scandal of Toxic Fumes in all Jets.
Suddenly everything made sense! I took the information straight to my doctor.
“Yes, that’s exactly what you’ve been describing to me for the last few years,” was his response. I have a letter signed by him that states I have been permanently incapacitated by Aerotoxic Syndrome.
For years I searched for the cause of my ill health and spent hours on the internet, but not until I heard about Aerotoxic Syndrome and organophosphate poisoning did I find an explanation for my symptoms.
In 1999, three scientists coined the term Aerotoxic Syndrome to describe the collection of symptoms seen in passengers and crew after air travel.
Organophosphates are toxic pesticides related to Agent Orange, originally developed as nerve gas for warfare. They’re added to aircraft engine oil and hydraulic fluid; because of the design of most jet engines, (apart from on the Boeing 787) the air inside the passenger cabin can become contaminated with these, and other, very toxic chemicals. In short, passengers and crew are being poisoned!
At a meeting with a British Airways doctor I was told, “If there is a problem, British Airways really would want to know about it.” I then began compiling a list from all the obituaries published online of the crew who had passed away over the last three years. I found there had been at least 32 deaths in 34 months from various causes including heart attacks, cancer, and suicide — all of which can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals like the ones found in Aerotoxic Syndrome. I compiled a list of names, ages, and fleets of all these crew members and called it “Absent Friends.” I sent it to the doctor I’d seen and asked if losing a crew member nearly every month was indicative of a problem they should be investigating.
The day that letter arrived at the airline’s head office we heard of another crew member who had died in Hong Kong. I didn’t ever receive a reply but a few days later I was summoned to a meeting with my manager; at which point my contract of employment was terminated.
The flight back from Cape Town proved to be my last ever as part of the cabin crew. Back in 2008 when I got sick there wasn’t much help or information for crews, so I set about getting myself well. I did coffee enemas and bought an infra-red sauna after reading Sherry Rogers’ book Detoxify or Die. My Aerotoxic Syndrome has slightly improved over the past nine years but I am still unable to work.
I now have been diagnosed with obstructed lungs and asthma, breast cancer, cardiac dysfunction and ventricular arrhythmia, osteopenia of the spine (osteoporosis at L1), chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple chemical sensitivity, underactive thyroid, adrenal fatigue, and “severe” nervous system damage.
When I was sent for a CT scan of my respiratory tract, I was told the damage was similar to that seen in solvent abusers. I was told by a Consultant Immunologist at St. Helier Hospital, London, that I was an “intrinsically healthy person” and that all the things wrong with me had been caused by “external factors.”
Watch Sherry Rogers talk about her book:
The Next Steps
I now campaign to raise awareness and work as an unpaid adviser to affected passengers and crews of Aerotoxic Syndrome.
I’ve continued to compile a list, it’s called “Angel Fleet” now. We have nearly 9,000 members in a Facebook group I set up to pay tribute to all the British Airways crew members who have died. We’ve also opened a shop where we sell face masks for passengers and crew. The funds raised help affected crew and their families. We also plan to create a website that all the airlines of the world can join to help raise awareness of this global problem.
Tragically, my Angel Fleet list now has over six hundred names on it and just last week we lost another crew member, aged 27. This is just one airline, British Airways, in one country — how many people worldwide are being poisoned while governments and airlines refuse to take action?
Why did it take me so long to realize it was flying making me ill? Because I believed the air I breathed on board the aircraft was filtered, I believed my health & safety at work was protected by law.
Listen to Dee speak on the Richie Allen Show: