Posted on Jan 20, 2019, 8 p.m.
To many pilots and flight attendants appear to be living the high life getting to travel all over the world, but they may be paying the price with their health.
It may not even just be the flight crew who are feeling the effects, passengers may even be exposed, especially the more frequent flyers traveling above in the skies. The culprit is called aerotoxic syndrome, and it is believed to have affected more than 250,000 pilots, passengers, and cabin crew around the world. The ailment can be traced back to 1963 with the switch from fresh air sources to bleed air.
Jets use synthetic oils containing toxic organosphosphate chemicals banned by the EPA since 2011 for residential use which are responsible for some of the dangers posed by pesticides and nerve gas. The heated lubricants make their way into passenger cabins when bleed air is used creating toxic vapors. Wet seals in place to keep air and oil apart lose efficacy over time without proper care, when they fail it causes vapors to make their way into bleed air as fume events, that may create a blue tinged smoke with a foul smell. Since there are no sensors to detect this it can go unnoticed if the smell isn’t very strong in small slow leaks. The seals maintenance replacements requirements were lengthened from 5000 to 30,000 flight hours in 1978 in a policy which further endangers health of crew and passengers.
Fume events are a regular occurance and have been linked to chronic and acute symptoms such as heart spasms, violent vomiting, inflamed nerve endings, respiratory problems, and blurred vision. Effects of fume events are cumulative, placing flight crew and frequent flyers at even higher risks. Those suffering from chronic aerotoxic syndrome can die from cardiac arrest if the toxins move into heart tissue. Regardless of exposure level everyone exposed is at danger due to it possibly disorienting and intoxicating the flight crew by impacting their cognitive function.
Short of seeking other means of transport there is little that can be done to avoid these affects should you be on a flight experiencing a fume event, however activated carbon masks can offer some degree of protection.
Writing letters and/or contacting airlines and asking for bleed air filtration to be installed on aircrafts is recommended by airline crew members trying to raise awareness of the issue called the Aerotoxic Association, who are keeping track of fume events around the globe.
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