Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

Coliform bacteria, mold, insect eggs, and a fresh breath of engine fumes; flying isn’t as luxurious as you think.

If you think the air you breathe, food you eat, and water you  drink is clean and harmless, think again. Just because a toxin’s effects aren’t readily apparent or visible to the naked eye doesn’t make us immune to it. Two notable dangers of airlines are a perfect example of this reality: contaminated airline tap water containing coliform bacteria (and so much more) and toxic air. And these aren’t problems that cause minor cases of discomfort — they’re serious health issues that highlight the potential hazards of airline use and the necessity of addressing them publicly.

One Sip Of Water; A Host Of Coliform Bacteria

Here are four of the ways airline tap water is damaging your health unsuspectingly:

1. One In Ten Planes Fail Standards For Water Safety

In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that approximately 12 percent of commercial airlines in the United States contained coliform bacteria — rod-shaped bacteria commonly used to determine the health of water and food. Although coliform bacteria itself is not always dangerous, some species, most notably Escherichia coli (E. coli), are an indicator of feces in the water. Consumption of the coliform bacteria E.coli can lead to numerous health problems including vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. If left untreated, these problems can snowball into more severe issues including hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), kidney failure, and blood clots that can create central nervous system such as brain swelling, paralysis, and seizures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 2,000 Americans end up in the hospital and 60 die as a result of E. coli each year.

2. Hoses Are Typically Clogged With Mold

So where exactly does coliform bacteria come from? Sources are typically mold-clogged hoses that are used to fill on-board water tanks, which may seem like an easy enough problem to fix. But former industry workers claim that even after water tanks are flushed and bleached, sediment still remains and accumulates over time. Given the potential dangers of bacteria such as E. coli accumulating, it’s clear that stricter, more comprehensive regulations are needed for flight attendants and passengers to drink airplane tap water.

“Water onboard is regulated under the (EPA) to ensure safe drinking water on the aircraft,” according to The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The AFA-CWA pushed for this regulation more than 15 years ago. The regulation gives broad discretion to airlines on how often they must test the water and flush the tanks. AFA [also known as AFA-CWA] does not believe this regulation goes far enough or is sufficiently enforced.

3. Salmonella, Insect Eggs, And More Are In Airplane Water

The presence of coliform bacteria is enough of a red flag that water contains potentially dangerous contaminants, but it’s not the only one that’s been reported. In 2002, The Wall Street Journal reported findings taken from 14 different flights from Cathay Pacific, which was touted  to have the world’s cleanest airline cabins in 2016 by SkyTrax, a company that recognizes excellence and quality in the airline industry. Yet the findings call this title into question.

“The results of our water-quality snapshot: a long list of microscopic life you don’t want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs,” the publication reported. “Worse, contamination was the rule, not the exception.”

4. Contaminants Are Tens To Hundreds Of Times Higher Than U.S. Government Limits

In addition to the discovery of unsavory microscopic life, the same 2002 report found that “almost all of the bacteria levels were tens, sometimes hundreds, of times above U.S. government limits.” Clearly, if the water quality taken from what is considered to be one of the world’s cleanest airlines is testing for dangerous bacteria significantly above U.S. government limits, there is a strong need for a reevaluation of quality control procedures and regulations.

Other more recent studies have confirmed the presence of various bacteria in airline water, suggesting that the problem has yet to be adequately dealt with.

Given the disturbing findings in reports that have surfaced in the media, progress has been made since their release. An example of such progress is the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), which the EPA implemented in 2009 to protect passengers from microbiological contaminants through maintenance plans and water system operations.

An EPA representative told HoneyColony:

The plans include routine disinfection and flushing of the water system, air carrier training requirements for key personnel, and periodic sampling of the onboard drinking water, as well as self-inspections of each aircraft water system and immediate notification of passengers and crew when violations or specific situations occur … Since inception of the rule, monitoring violations have decreased by 97 percent, reporting violations have decreased by 66 percent, and the detection rate for total (coliform bacteria) have been further reduced by 33 percent.

Who Let One Rip?

5. Airline Air Quality 

Another airline health concern that has surfaced into the media spotlight is the potential for airplane air quality to become contaminated with fumes from their engines. Over time, exposure to these fumes can lead to aerotoxic syndrome, which can lead to seizures, loss of memory, and vomiting, among other symptoms.

Although exposure to engine fumes might not lead to significant problems for people who fly once in a blue moon, frequent flyers and staff, including flight attendants and pilots, experience the highest risk.

“If you fly regularly, or fly as part of your job, you’re going to have exposure to constant low-level leakage, which you may or may not be aware of,” says Jenny Goodman, a doctor from London’s Biolab Medical Unit. “You’re stuck there for hours and hours. You’re breathing far more concentrated levels of these substances, and a far greater level of them.”

But what about casual flyers?

Even for those who don’t fly regularly, the danger is still there — certain airline cabins are routinely sprayed with pesecticides prior to take-off. This procedure is called Disinsection and is supposedly meant to protect our health and the environment. Despite this claim, pesticide sprays can lead to a host of health issues, including headaches, hives, rashes, and respiratory problems.

Dee Passon knows the dangers and health effects of toxic airline fumes all too well — after working as a flight attendant for 25 years, she was diagnosed with Aerotoxic Syndrome, an illness caused by exposure to contaminated airline air. This illness has caused her to struggle with mood swings, body pain, and cognitive problems.

Although Dee has harnessed her struggles as the fuel to spread awareness of Aerotoxic Syndrome through her website Toxic Free Airlines, she doesn’t believe that aircraft manufacturers are taking the necessary steps to prevent people from contracting this illness.

“Aircraft manufacturers need to follow the example set by Boeing with the 787 and switch to non-bleed air technology, chemical detectors, and bleed air filters need to be fitted to all aircraft using bleed air,” she tells HoneyColony.

And her sentiments on the media’s response to the illness is similar: she claims that despite increased coverage in the United Kingdom, “there are still millions of people who are totally unaware of the risks.”

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You Have To Fly At Some Point

So what exactly can we do to protect ourselves? There are four key steps that Dee outlines:

  • Wear a mask when you fly
  • Take a detox cocktail of antioxidants before and after your flight (e.g., Vitamin C, glutathione, and “R” form alpha-lipoic acid
  • Take one gram of good quality (no aspartame) vitamin C every hour you’re in the air
  • Fly only on the Boeing 787 aircraft

Of course, these solutions might minimize your risk of contracting Aerotoxic Syndrome, but they don’t solve the core problem — this will require more work and an organized effort from the public.

“Write to the airlines you fly with: the regulator in your country (Civil Aviation Authority in U.K., Federal Aviation Administration in U.S.) and your MP or representative demanding action to protect passengers from fumes,” Dee urges.

For those living with Aerotoxic Syndrome, Dee is adamant that healing and recovery is possible.

“Correct nutrient deficiencies and take good quality supplements,” she said. “Avoid alcohol. Use a far infrared sauna to detox. Read Detoxify or Die by Sherry Rogers — I wouldn’t have got well without her book!”

Anyone ordering masks from Cambridge Mask Co by way of Toxic Free Airlines can use the code AEROMASK at checkout to get a 10% discount.

Tyler MacDonald is a freelance copywriter and science enthusiast.

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