|Pilots, crew and passengers may be exposed to toxic fumes|
on aircraft, studies show.
British Airways pilot Richard Westgate had been suffering from a long list of health problems in the years leading up to his death in December 2012, aged 43.
He had been convinced he was being poisoned by toxic fumes that leaked on board the planes that he flew.
In fact, he was so sure about it that he had asked his lawyers to begin legal action against the airline for “breaching health and safety guidelines”.
Now scientists claim they have compelling evidence that shows he was right all along.
Published in the Swiss Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry, it’s believed to be the first case study of a pilot with chronic ill health following exposure to contaminated cabin air.
The researchers conducted a postmortem examination, analyzed the health problems Mr Westgate had detailed before his death, and retested blood that was drawn while he was still alive.
They concluded that the most likely cause of his death was “organophosphate induced neurotoxicity”. Organophosphates are hazardous chemicals present in jet engine oil and hydraulic fluid.
Frank Cannon, of Glasgow-based law firm Cannons Law, who has been fighting for answers following his client’s death, told the UK’s Mirror : “We believe that constant exposure to fuel leaks in planes contributed to Richard’s death.
“This scientific research proves that Richard suffered from chemicals called organophosphates which cause chronic brain and other problems. This happens because of constant exposure working aboard aircraft.”
The law firm is acting for 25 people who claim they’ve been affected by fumes on planes.
So how do toxic fumes get inside planes?
The cabin air is drawn in from the aircraft’s engines or auxiliary power unit — with the exception of the newer Boeing 787 model — using the engine’s compressors. This “bleed air” heats the air inside, and pressurises the cabin altitude. However, engine seals leak over time or fail, allowing heated oil mist to escape into the bleed air.
Mr Westgate, who had flown for 15 years, had noted that the on start-up, the engines would create puffs of smoke inside the plane followed by an oily smell.
After three years of flying his symptoms started, and progressively worsened to the point where he had severe chest pain, problems walking, and would fall off his bicycle for no reason. He underwent numerous tests and took a range of medications, and was even admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Overall, he saw 15 specialists. But it was only shortly before he was found dead in his hotel room that he was diagnosed with having symptoms related to exposure to plane fumes.
How big is the problem?
It’s believed many more illnesses and even deaths have been caused by toxic fumes on planes.
However, it’s difficult to establish a causal link as there is no standard on-board system to monitor aircraft cabin-air contamination. That’s despite a series of ad hoc tests reporting contamination events.
Earlier this year an Australian Transport Safety Bureau report revealed passengers and crew on Australian aircraft were exposed to toxic fumes more than 1000 times over the past five years. There were several occasions when crew had to divert flights or make emergency landings because of the fumes, but passengers were never warned of the dangers.
Former pilot Dr Susan Michaelis, now head of research at the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, says she collapsed from fumes.
“Sitting in an unhealthy environment and being exposed to chemicals every day made me sick,” she told the Daily Telegraph .
She said there is compelling evidence of the impact these events have on health.
“There is a pattern of chronic ill-health … and it needs to be looked at further. My research has found clusters of pilots with brain cancer in the UK. They were mostly flying short-haul journeys.”
“The way the engines are designed means crew and passengers are exposed to hazardous fumes. These have both short- and long-term health impacts including cancer.”
A British Airways spokesperson told news.com.au: “It would be inappropriate to comment or speculate on the cause of death of an individual. The safety and security of our customers and crew are of paramount importance to British Airways and will never be compromised.”
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