Poisoned pilots continue to fly

Pilots injured by toxic substances can be a danger to aircraft safety, but pass annual health checks, study reveals.

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•Please contact me if you have knowledge of any kind about toxic fumes in aircraft, e-mail ash@dagbladet.no.

(London/Dagbladet.no:) Neuropsychologist Sarah Mackenzie-Ross at University College, London, has found evidence that a number of pilots are no longer capable of flying safely, probably as a result of exposure to toxic fumes on aircraft flight decks.

Of 18 pilots who are no longer capable of carrying out vital aviation procedures, nine are still flying in commercial traffic, according to her study.

Researchers are now wondering just how many pilots may be affected.


“It is quite clear that there is a need for a more thorough study. We are concerned about what the study of 27 pilots revealed. There is a clear pattern in the shortcomings displayed by these pilots. They show many similarities with other occupational groups who have been exposed to toxic organophosphates,” says Mackenzie-Ross to Dagbladet.no.

The pilots examined by the neuropsychologist have not been capable of responding to simple instructions from the control tower. They have not been able to follow the procedures at take-off and landing. Critical information about height, speed, course and altitude have also escaped their notice.

“Our tests revealed cognitive impairment in the pilots. This is not revealed by the annual health checks which the pilots must pass,” warns Mackenzie-Ross.

In a number of articles, Dagbladet.no has drawn attention to oil leaks in aero engines which at high temperatures can generate compounds resembling nerve gas which contaminate the air supply in the passenger cabin and on the flight deck.

Turbine and hydraulic oils contain a range of toxic substances, including so-called organophosphates.

British investigation

The neuropsychologist’s study is just one of a number of alarming discoveries presented at an open hearing held by the British authorities’ Committee on Toxicity (COT) at Aviation House in London on 11 July.

The British investigations were begun after several years of pressure from pilots’ organisations and central politicians.

Dagbladet.no was the only media representative in attendance at the hearing. A month before the hearing the British authorities had already made it clear that there would be no room for the press. However, thanks to helpful contacts, Dagbladet.no managed to gain admittance.

During the hearing it became evident that the British aviation authority (CAA) is very poorly informed as regards toxic fume incidents in aircraft. Whilst the CAA’s figures only indicate 262 reported toxic gas incidents in the United Kingdom from 2001 to 2005, the British pilots’ organisation BALPA reports more than 800.

“Even our figures show only a fraction of the actual number of toxic fume incidents. Estimates indicate that our database only contains about five percent of all incidents involving toxic gasses aboard aircraft,” stated BALPA’s representative, Captain Tristan Loraine, during the hearing.

During the hearing, both the leader of the committee and Sarah Mackenzie-Ross confirmed that they have been contacted by a number of pilots who state that they dare not report toxic fume incidents, often because of fear of reprisals by the airlines.

“More than a third of the pilots I have been in contact with say that they never report this sort of incident,” says neuropsychologist Sarah Mackenzie-Ross.

1674 toxic gas incidents
The following alarming revelations were presented during the hearing:

• One charter pilot has experienced 150 toxic fume incidents but has not reported a single incident to the CAA.

 • A survey of 106 British pilots revealed that between them they have experienced a total of 1674 toxic fume incidents.

• No commercial airliners have alarm systems which warn of toxic fumes.

• BAE 146 and Boeing 757 are the airliners which are most prone to toxic fume incidents. • The aircraft manufacturer BAE SYSTEMS states that carbon filters have been installed in some of the most exposed aircraft, but that these filters lose their effect after a period of use.

• The pilots’ organisation BALPA believes that toxic fume incidents are a widespread problem which threatens aircraft safety and is likely to cause irreparable damage to the health of pilots and cabin crew.

• During the hearing a BALPA pilot told of how he had managed to pass CAA’s health check, despite having problems. Shortly afterwards he was no longer able to fly because of health problems he believes are the result of toxic fumes on the flight deck.

• BALPA also fears that passengers have experienced the same symptoms reported by hundreds of flight personnel.

One of the doctors in the committee challenged the airline industry with the following statement:

“We know that it is technically possible to obviate the risk of toxic fume injury in aircraft. In my opinion it’s strange that this has not been done long ago.”

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