13 mysterious toxic fume incidents

Investigations by the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority show gas on flight decks and in passenger cabins of Norwegian aircraft.

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(Dagbladet.no:) Dagbladet.no has recently shown how passengers and crew are exposed to toxic gasses as a result of oil leaks in aircraft engines. British aviation authorities have confirmed that this represents a safety hazard. Norwegian-registered aircraft have also been affected.

“There is no doubt that we have experienced such incidents, though they are very uncommon,” said Håvard Vestgren, Flight Manager in SAS Braathens, to Dagbladet.no last week.

13 incidents of interest

When asked by Dagbladet.no for information, the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority’s analysis section searched for possible incidents involving toxic fumes in Norwegian airliners from the summer of 2001 to 2005 and revealed 13 mysterious incidents which may be connected with contaminated cabin air in aircraft. Senior adviser Jon Sneltvedt stresses that there may also be unrecorded cases.

“Some cases of gas or oil smells aboard aircraft are probably not looked upon as serious incidents. Hence there are probably a number of reported incidents which do not show up in our database,” says Sneltvedt to Dagbladet.no.

Aviation incidents are reported according to four levels of seriousness.

1. Aviation accidents

2. Serious aviation incidents

3. Aviation incidents

4. Operational malfunctions

“We must point out the possibility that such incidents may have been reported as “operational malfunctions”. This expression is used to denote cases which are less serious than aviation accidents or incidents, but which nevertheless are to be reported to the Authority. The majority of anomaly reports from the airlines to the Civil Aviation Authority are of this type. Because these reports are not recorded in a database, it would be very time-consuming to read through all documents of this type in an attempt to find relevant incidents,” explains Jon Sneltvedt.

Mysterious incidents

The Civil Aviation Authority’s database, ECCAIRS, contains a total of 851 accidents and incidents involving Norwegian-registered aircraft, as well as accidents and incidents involving foreign aircraft in Norway. The comprehensive database has been kept since 2001.

Of the 851 incidents in the period up to and including 2005, the Civil Aviation Authority found 32 cases in which odours or smoke were reported aboard an aircraft. No personal injuries were recorded in connection with any of these incidents. The Authority emphasises that pursuant to international criteria, only serious personal injuries will be entered into the database. Any delayed effects resulting from exposure will therefore not be recorded in the ECCAIRS database.

The Aviation Authority has reviewed the 32 cases and any incidents in which the source of the odour or smoke was not relevant in this context have been excluded from the list. On other words, electrical fires or potential electrical fires were removed.

The result is that 13 mysterious Norwegian incidents remain involving possible contaminated cabin air, as reported to the Civil Aviation Authority in this period. The incidents occurred on the following dates:

4 November 2001
25 February 2002
7 June 2002
11 August 2002
3 September 2002
30 October 2002
16 February 2003
20 February 2003
7 April 2003
4 May 2003
13 May 2003
11 November 2005
9 January 2006

New figures from Iceland

However, the database tells us nothing about whether there may have been a risk of organophosphate poisoning in any of these incidents (and if so how many).

At the request of the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority, the Icelandic Civil Aviation Authority checked its database from June 2005 to May 2006 and found seven incidents involving smoke or gasses on flight decks. In three of these cases, involving Boeing machines of types 747, 757 and 767, the source of gas or smoke was petroleum.

In the remaining four incidents the smoke originated from electrical or mechanical faults.

The Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority takes the problem of gasses in cabin air very seriously and points out that a serious gas poisoning incident took place on 10 September 2000, when an SAS aircraft on its way from Gardermoen to Paris had to make an emergency landing at Torp Airport when crew members were affected by gas on the flight deck. The aircraft’s captain sustained serious injury.

A detailed description of this incident can be found in Report No. 45/2002, submitted on 30 September 2002 by the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board of the time.

This incident occurred before the inception of the ECCAIRS database, and is therefore not among the above-mentioned 13 cases reported by the Civil Aviation Authority.