Aerotoxic Syndrome – Toxic air in airplane exposure


Have you seen the movie “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney?  Well the character Clooney plays is a road warrior and is flying across the globe all the time.  If you are one of the people, who are in a race of accumulating frequent flyer miles, it is worth knowing that aircraft cabin air can be toxic. 

London-based Aerotoxic Association published a report on exposure to toxic fumes during frequent flights.  If you are suffering from headache, breathing trouble and other unexplained illnesses during your frequent fliers, it might be the result of breathing toxic fumes circulating in commercial airline cabins, according to the report.  The unofficial name of these symptoms is called as “Aerotoxic Syndrome” and is attributed to breathing contaminated oil fumes leaking into aircraft cabins.

How is air circulated in airplane?
The outside air is too cold and thin and in order to make it fit for breathing, it must be pressurized, heated, and then circulated to the passengers. The cabin air is made from:

  • Drawing supply of compressed from plane’s engines
  • This compressed air is mixed with existing cabin air and re-circulated throughout the flight

Therefore, the air in the passenger cabin is a mixture of re-circulated cabin air and fresh air that is compressed in the airplane engine.

Why is the air compressed from engine harmful?

  • Air is drawn from engine housing, which is often contaminated with toxic fumes from the hot oil that is used to lubricate the various moving parts of the engine
  • Sometimes so much oil mixes with air being drawn into the cabin that passengers will literally be able to see fumes and smoke filling the cabin – what is commonly referred to as a “fume event”.

What is the composition of oil that is used to lubricate parts of engine?
The synthetic oil used to lubricate plane engines is specially formulated to endure extreme conditions.

  • The association told that the oil is composed of toxic components, including ‘tricresyl phosphate’, an organophosphate that is used in pesticides and nerve agents and is known for its neurotoxin properties.
  • “Bleed air” may also contain...

    particles of heavy metals from the engines, such as nickel, cadmium and beryllium.

What harm can these toxins cause?
According to the Aerotoxic Association, these toxins

  • Can cause damage to the central nervous system that varies from person to person.
  • The symptoms may include headaches, muscle tremors and signs of paralysis, blurred vision, light-headedness and dizziness.
  • For some, the symptoms may be short-lived, but for others, persistent neurological damage may occur.

Numerous testimonies from pilots, air filtration experts, flight attendants and passengers, who have been harmed by toxic cabin air, are in the Association report.

Do all airplanes use bleed air?
As per the report, virtually all jet aircraft and turboprops continue to use bleed air. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the only type of plane that uses non-bleed technology and no longer takes air from the engines.

Well the good news is Aerotoxic Association is addressing these issues and as a results an amendment has been introduced into the “Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act” that would require the US Federal Aviation Administration to complete a study of cabin air quality within one year.

I hope the US Federal Aviation study backs up the potential of toxic air in airplane as reported by Aerotoxic Association.  Next bigger question would be what steps the Federal Aviation will take to minimize or eliminate the exposure of toxic to passengers for existing thousands of airplanes.  If you have the symptoms mentioned in the report due to long travel, it might not be alcohol or the jet lag, it might be from exposure to toxic components present in the airplane.

3 Responses

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