Aerotoxic syndrome is no joke. Imagine standing in front of a fan while someone opens a bottle of motor oil and forces you to inhale the fumes. This is the situation airline passengers face every day when they inhale engine oil mixed with recycled air thanks to faulty engine seals. Crews and passengers who are unusually sensitive to this can develop “aerotoxic syndrome,” an illness caused by exposure to contaminated air in jet aircraft that has been linked to symptoms ranging from sore throats and migraines to chemical pneumonia and brain cell death.
Aerotoxic Syndrome: Disease of Denial
Few diseases have been as underreported and controversial as aerotoxic syndrome, a term given to the illness in 1999 by Dr. Harry Hoffman and professors Chris Winder and Jean Christophe in their report Aerotoxic Syndrome: Adverse Health Effects Following Exposure To Jet Oil Mist During Commercial Flights.
But many doctors – especially aviation physicians – deny its existence as do airlines, most likely due to the high probability of class action suits as well as massive individual legal retribution. Government aviation agencies also look the other way when it comes to aerotoxic syndrome, or downplay it. For instance the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 2013 report to Congress stated that only 69 air contamination (by oil) flights were known over a 10 year period from 2002 through 2011. And that none of these cases involved known injuries, fatalities, or damage.
Just this past January, two American Airlines flights were grounded because of aerotoxic syndrome.
If only one percent of the 100,000 commercial air flights a day have contaminated air that would still make 70,000 flights a week potential aerotoxic syndrome carriers.
John Hoyte has no doubts that aerotoxic syndrome is real and can cause serious health issues. Hoyte, author of Aerotoxic Syndrome: Aviation’s Darkest Secret, was a pilot for 16 years. But after only six months he began to suspect something wasn’t right.
“I experienced a frightening change in my health with severe neurological problems with memory and speech, sweating, and exhaustion,” says Hoyte.
Yet he continued to fly without telling anyone because he “loved his job.” But the symptoms, which he claims were caused by exposure to toxic oil fumes in a confined space, got progressively worse. By 2005, at the age of 49, he had to end his flying career.
“I was like a zombie when I finished,” says Hoyte. “It was like being intoxicated without alcohol. I thought I was going to make a huge mistake and kill everyone.”
Dr. Krutika Ingle Karandikar, a diabetes specialist with an online consultation service, also believes in aerotoxic syndrome. She says sometimes passengers can detect the contamination because there’s a sweet or moist smell in the air. Others say the air smells like dirty socks or old wet dogs.
“The symptoms depend on the amount of damage done to the central nervous system,” Karandikar says. “Symptoms include fatigue, light headedness, vertigo, palpitations, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, and seizures.”
Hoyte said after he retired he immediately discovered 27 other pilots with the exact same problems. This led him to eventually establish the Aerotoxic Association, a support and information website for those affected by aerotoxic syndrome. Hoyte says through this website he has connected with more than 10,000 grounded aerotoxic pilots.
Boeing Settles Quietly
“Aerotoxic syndrome is a real thing,” says investigative reporter Jim Gold. In 2011, working for MSNBC in Seattle, Gold covered what is believed to be the first settled lawsuit against the Boeing Co. over claims of aerotoxic syndrome. Terry Williams, a then 42-year-old former American Airlines flight attendant and mother of two, claimed Boeing’s faulty aircraft design allowed toxic fumes to reach the cabin, which over time triggered tremors, memory loss, and severe headaches. The amount and other details of the settlement were not made public as a condition of the agreement.
“I had gotten into the story from a research angle,” says Gold. “I’d just happened to meet Clem Furlong, a University of Washington professor, who was working to find a marker in the blood to show people who were exposed could be really sickened permanently.”
There have been similar lawsuits against Boeing since then, including one filed by four flight attendants in 2015 that is still pending. That lawsuit concerns a July 12, 2013, emergency landing in Chicago by Alaska Airlines Flight 769. The four flight attendants became seriously ill after complaining of noxious chemical fumes in the cabin. Two of the flight attendants passed out, including Vanessa Woods.
“The next thing I knew I was on the galley floor, and the other flight attendant was on the PA system just mumbling incoherently,” Woods told NBC News.
Paramedics rushed all four — who were sick, disoriented, and struggling to concentrate — to the hospital. Years later, three of them, including Woods, say tremors, neurological, and memory problems still prevent them from returning to work.
In an interview last year, Woods says, “I got on that flight, I was healthy and I got off the flight and I have never been the same since.”
The lawsuit suggests Boeing has been aware of the danger for decades, citing internal documents including a 2007 email from a Boeing engineer who laments: “Bottom line is I think we are looking for a tombstone before anyone with any horsepower is going to take interest.”
Possibly thousands of crew members and passengers have been exposed to aerotoxic syndrome over the years but may not realize it, according to the nation’s largest flight attendant union.
“They may not realize that they’re sick or that it was caused from this contaminated air,” Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants tells NBC. “So they are not getting properly treated for poisonous fumes that are now in their system.”
Says Gold, “This is a big workplace safety issue. The airlines and Boeing and Airbus seem to be more worried about ongoing liability from employees than one-off settlements for passengers.”
Bleed Air: Why This Happens
The problems began in 1962 when airlines decided to change the way passengers and crew received air. Before 1962, airlines used mechanical air pumps to produce breathing air for passengers and crew. However, according to Hoyte, the pumps were both “unreliable and costly to maintain.” After 1962, airlines decided to use air that bled off the jet’s turbine engines.
“Scientists warned that the bleed air could become contaminated from fluids within the engine and warned not to do it,” says Hoyte. “But 60 or so years ago the huge cost savings against a few oil fumes were too big an advantage to ignore.”
With the bleed air method, air moves through the engines permitting forward thrust, then continues through the turbine’s compressor system and is bled off and fed back through the cabin. But before the breathing air moves inside the plane via air ducts, it comes in contact with the inner workings of the turbines including oil seals that wear down and leak small particles of oil. These particles then burn on hot engines and release fumes that mix with the breathing air. A lot of fumes released is known as a “fume event”.
See this Bleed Air video:
Why Cabin Air Is Toxic
The oil used in jet turbine engines contains TCP (tricresyl phosphate), belongs to the organophosphate family of chemicals originally designed as nerve agents for warfare, which explains why so many of the aerotoxic symptoms are neurological. In turbines, TCP acts as an anti-wear agent that helps with the extreme temperatures of jet engines.
Pilots are the most vulnerable to fume events because the cockpit receives the first blast of bleed air and therefore the most concentrated levels of TCP before air moves back into the passenger sections. Flight attendants also are at higher risk because of the frequency of their exposure to possible fume events. Matt Bass, for instance, was only 34 when he died in his sleep. He had been a flight attendant for 15 years. A forensic pathologist found that there was evidence of chronic exposure to organophosphates. The report was then examined by a leading authority on organophosphate poisoning and the results were confirmed.
One big concern is that pilots could become sickened or even pass out from a fume event. This might have been the cause of several unexplained airline accidents or near accidents over the years, according to Hoyte.
Just recently on Oct. 25, a giant British Airways Airbus 380 en route to London from San Francisco with 400 passengers aboard had to make an emergency landing in Vancouver, Canada, after the captain informed air traffic controllers of a pan pan pan situation. In pilot speak, pan pan is code for an emergency aboard but not imminently life threatening. In the radio transmission, the captain quite clearly stated the emergency as a “fume event” that was causing passengers and crew to become ill.
“I was smelling weird smells and feeling quite nauseous,” passenger Laura Dashwood said.
Passenger Rory Gilchrist said the air smelled like foot odor. “I looked around thinking someone had their shoes off.”
After the plane landed, firemen in hazmat suits and oxygen masks boarded, much to the shock of passenger Claire Moss. “After the firemen enter, you think, what have I been breathing for the past three hours?”
Dashwood was advised to get checked out at a local Vancouver hospital but British Airways refused to pay the $800 examination cost.
A local news station asked a Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigator what might have caused the mishap, and, incredibly, the investigator admitted the source could have been “toxic fumes from an oil seal leak.”
Watch this video about the emergency landing:
Hear the captain declaring the emergency:
A New Look At Jet Lag
Passenger Maryam Henein also had a recent encounter with possible toxic cabin air on a flight from Greece to Los Angeles.
“I had to hold my jacket over my nose to save myself,” says Henein, co-founder of HoneyColony. “The smell of chemicals and oil was nauseating and harsh to my olfactory senses.”
Just a few days before her flight, a colleague sent her an article on aerotoxic syndrome, and she had already investigated the ill effects of pesticides on planes. “I’m flying to Miami soon and have ordered a charcoal mask.”
“The surprise is that more people don’t get sick when they fly,” says allergy and sinus specialist Dr. Murray Grossan, author of The Whole Body Approach to Allergy and Sinus Health.
Grossan believes even good recycled airplane cabin air is bad for us. “I have patients all the time who can’t fly because they always get sick because there are always passengers with fresh colds who are coughing and sneezing and spreading germs.”
Given that fatigue and headaches are common symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome, Hoyte believes more research is necessary to see if even small amounts of cabin pollution combined with increased radiation (due to airlines flying in excess of 30,000 feet) might actually be one of the causes of so-called jet lag.
How To Know Your Flight Is Toxic?
Odds are you won’t, as was the case with the recent emergency landing in Vancouver when the crew reported a fume event but passengers were never told what was going on.
However, if lots of people are coughing who weren’t coughing before takeoff, that’s not a good sign. Others becoming ill or even fainting should also be noted. Sometimes a mist can be seen in the cabin. And, although fume events are often odorless, they can also fill cockpits and cabins with wretched odors.
If you believe your flight may be contaminated, turn off the gasper fan above your head and notify your flight attendant.
8 More Things You Can Do
There is currently very little in the way of recommended treatments for aerotoxic syndrome. But a sensible approach would be to detoxify as soon as possible and load up on antioxidants. Consider these options:
- Fresh air – A home oxygen machine might be your best resource after a toxic flight, especially if you are a frequent flyer.
- Chlorella and or spirulina tablets – Take them on your flights and digest some every few hours.
- Equilibrium – A raw honey-based super food to help combat stress, toxins, and give you nutrient-dense energy.
- Vitamin C – Take 1 gram every hour you are in the air and eat organic foods.
- Green Tea – Grossman advises all his patients to take bags of green tea with them and drink plenty of it.
- Nose sprays – Use a silver solution like Silver Excelsior which is carry on friendly and put a few drops in your water. You should be drinking lots of water and hydrating anyway.
- Masks – Think about purchasing a face mask with a carbon-activated filter and wear it for the duration of your flight.
- Activated Charcoal – Many detox systems absorb toxins, but activated charcoal uses a process called adsorption. This allows it to bind to toxins, and since the body cannot absorb it, toxins are easily removed.
What’s Being Done In The Big Picture?
Nothing really. Obvious solutions would be to replace TCP with some other non-toxic chemicals in the turbine oil or place filters in air ducts. Hoyte says the airline industry has refused to do this because of the costs involved.
And, ironically, although airlines deny aerotoxic syndrome, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner uses electrically-driven compressors rather than bleed air to supply breathing air to passengers and crew. So apparently the ultimate solution is aircraft attrition.
How long this will take and how many flyers will be sickened in the meantime, is anyone’s guess.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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