A landmark coroners report, released in February in the UK, has called on airlines to take action to address the problem of toxic cabin air.
The inquiry into the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate was the first to connect a fatality with toxic cabin air, also know as aerotoxic syndrome.
According to The Telegraph, the senior coroner for Dorset, Stanhope Payne explained that people often exposed to fumes inside aircraft cabins faced “consequential damage to their health.”
To avoid further deaths as a result of toxic cabin air, he advised British Airways, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to undertake urgent action.
Aerotoxic syndrome is a term used to describe a wide range of maladies which result from the inhalation of aircraft cabin air. As this air is circulated through the aircraft’s engines in order to keep it warm, it is theorised that toxic fumes from the burning of fuel could cause sickness.
Theoretically, such fumes are removed from the air through a filtration system; however this can malfunction, leading to them spreading into the cabin.
In the case of BA pilot Richard Westgate, the coroner blamed the death on “exposure to organo-phosphate compounds in the cabin air”.
While toxic cabin air is unlikely to pose a risk to most flyers, people who travel regularly, as well as aircraft cabin crew, could be at risk. Additionally, some individuals are genetically unable to filter these toxins through their bodies quickly and thus are at an elevated risk of aerotoxic syndrome.
Aviation Industry Denials
The findings of this landmark report come in the face of decades of official denials from the aviation industry regarding the existence of aerotoxic syndrome.
In defence of this denial, airlines such as BA have cited studies commissioned by the UK Department for Transport, which found “no evidence that pollutants occur in the cabin air at levels exceeding available health and safety standards”.
Contrasting this, activist groups such as the Aerotoxic Association point out that toxic fume events have caused an alarmingly large number of in-flight incidents.
It believes that the only way to solve this problem would be for airlines to abandon the use of engine-filtered ‘bleed air’, something which it says has so far been avoided due to its cost.
An official response to these safety calls is expected to be delivered to the public in less than a month.