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Aerotoxic Syndrome – The Invisible Aviation Risk

Modern aviation science and technology have been developing at a fast pace. The designs of aircraft are more stable and secure. The aircraft accessories have also been improving constantly. However, there are few changes related to projects of air compression and cabin air supply. The bleed air system which has been used for many years is always questioned and there indeed are some dangers hidden in the flying trapeze life which everyone is envious of. Most crews are sceptical of suffering the incurable disease known as Aerotoxic Syndrome, which is a lifelong pain.

Aerotoxic Syndrome is a term used to describe the symptoms of exposure to contaminated air. The senior British medical examiner, Stanhope Payne gave his name to the autopsy report of the British Airways pilot Richard Westgate who died at the early age of 43 years. As Payne said: “Air passengers are not on the plane every day, but the flight crews are in the space filled with poisonous gas in everyday life, accumulated over a long period, to develop the “Aerotoxic Syndrome”. In this report, Mr Payne called for urgent action by the British Civil Aviation Authority to prevent similar cases from continuing.

To provide oxygen to the people in the cabin, modern aircraft need to take air out of the cabin. Because of the low temperature of the air outside the plane, the extracted air needs to be heated by the engine and then injected into the cabin. Industry experts say the process is relatively safe, but if there is a leak, the oil that is heated and decomposed will also flow into the cabin with air. Inhalation of toxic gases into the cabin can lead to stimulation of the eyes, nose, and throat of personnel and passengers on board which could bring headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. At high concentrations, it could lead to difficulty in breathing, blurred vision, and acute or chronic symptoms such as cognitive impairment.

Before the death of Richard Westgate, who had been flying aircraft for 15 years, he often complained that the air in the cockpit of the aircraft had a taste of gasoline and doubted that this smell came from the exhaust of the aircraft engine.

Westgate began to develop different symptoms one after another, and as the driving time increased, these conditions became more and more severe and he eventually died. The autopsy report by Payne stated that there were excessive organophosphorus compounds accumulated in the body of Mr. Westgate.

Coincidentally, on 12th July 2013, Alaska Airlines’ Flight 769 landed in an emergency in Chicago. The four flight attendants on board were in a serious condition and complained about the presence of toxic chemical gases in the cabin. Two of the flight attendants were unconscious.

Four cabin attendants were sick at the time, unable to recognise the direction, having nausea and they were sent to the hospital for treatment. Two years later, three of them said that the problems of trembling, nerves and memory kept them from working. They blame the aircraft manufacturer for negligence and deception. " I was healthy when I was on that plane, but when I got off the plane, it never was the same," said Vanessa Woods, one of the flight attendants at the time.

Is the industry deliberately concealing?

Since the 1980s and 1990s, similar air pollution incidents have occurred in airlines in United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. It has been reported that Anjo Aviation Australia, which declared bankruptcy, had experienced more than 3,800 oil mist leakage incidents in two years. Many crew members suffered from Aerotoxic Syndrome. The airline claimed that the health and safety of passengers and crew would be given top priority. However, they proved that they feared the incident would affect the credibility of the company. They also feared that the involvement of insurance companies and investigation agencies would cause more changes in related incidents, and affect revenue.

Easyjet, the low-cost British airline, fitted its aircraft with specially designed filters to stop toxic fumes entering passenger cabins and cockpits in 2017. Despite not specifically mentioning Aerotoxic Syndrome in this announcement, it is the first, albeit passive, acknowledgment that standards can be raised.

It is not known how many passengers and crew are exposed to air pollution from the cabin, but the smoke or air pollution that occurs under any circumstances should not be taken lightly.

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