Toxic fumes in plane cabins pose health risks to frequent flyers, says coroner

'Aerotoxic syndrome' has been blamed for the death of pilot Richard Westgate

Jamie Campbell
Sunday 22 February 2015 19:59
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A coroner has warned that toxic fumes in cabin air could pose a health risk to frequent fliers and aircrew.

Stanhope Payne, the senior coroner for Dorset, has said that people regularly exposed to fumes circulating planes faced “consequential damage to their health”.

Payne, inquiring into the death of Richard Westgate, a British Airways pilot, called on BA and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to take “urgent action to prevent future deaths”.

The urgency behind Payne’s call for action is likely to be welcomed by campaigners who have raised similar concerns for a number of years.

Payne’s report is the first official UK recognition of so-called ‘aerotoxic syndrome’. The phenomenon has long been denied by airlines but has been blamed by some for the deaths of at least two pilots and numerous other incidents in which pilots have passed out in flight.

Frank Cannon, the lawyer for Westgate’s case, told The Telegraph: “This report is dynamite. It is the first time a British coroner has come to the conclusion that damage is being done by cabin air, something the industry has been denying for years.”

Cannon said that he was acting for approximately 50 other aircrew allegedly affected by the syndrome, working for airlines such as Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Thomas Cook and easyJet. He is also representing two passengers.

Commercial passenger planes are equipped with a system which compresses air from the engines and uses it to pressurise the cabin. However, they have been known to malfunction and allow excess oil particles to enter the air supply.

As the air recirculates in the confined space of a cabin the cumulative effect on frequent fliers, particularly aircrew, can be harmful, the coroner said.

Westgate, a senior first officer, died in 2012 after claiming that he had been poisoned by toxic cabin fumes.

Within the report, which was sent to the chief executive of BA and the chief operating officer of the CAA, the coroner raises five “matters of concern”, including that “organophosphate compounds are present in aircraft cabin air”; that “the occupants of aircraft cabins are exposed to organophosphate compounds with consequential damage to their health” and that “impairment of to the health of those controlling the aircraft may lead to the death of occupants”.

The report further states that there is no real-time monitoring to detect failures in cabin air quality and that no amount is taken by airlines of “genetic variation in the human species that would render individuals… intolerant of the exposure”.

It demands that the BA and the CAA respond within the next eight weeks, setting out the action that they propose to take. The report, made under regulation 28 of the Coroner’s Investigation Regulations 2013, is not a full verdict from an inquest, which has yet to be held in this case.

Cannon went on to say that: “There are major crashes where we suspect the only plausible explanation is that the crew were suffering from cognitive dysfunction. More commonly, it causes incredible misery – very fit, intelligent and motivated people fall over sick. The first thing that BA and other airlines have to do is recognise and take care of their injured aircrew.”

Official records from the Civil Aviation Authority show that Oxygen masks are being used by pilots and crew at the rate of at least five times a week to combat suspected “fume events”.

A spokesman for BA said that it could not comment but would respond to the coroner in due course whilst a spokesman for CAA said it would consider the report in detail but claimed it was “nothing that passengers or crew should be overly concerned about”.

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