Thousand of airline employees are ill

Pilots knocked out by toxic gas. Research director Pål Molander answers readers’ questions.

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 ( It is now feared that several thousand pilots and cabin crew around the world have incurred permanent neurological damage caused by toxic gasses in cabin air. Both the Norwegian Institute of Occupational Health (STAMI) and the American Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) are now studying organophosphate poisoning in airline employees.

Dagbladet’s revelation
In the spring of 2003, Dagbladet commenced its series of articles about toxic organophosphates in turbine and hydraulic oils after the trade union OFS, now SAFE, had raised the alarm at its 2002 annual congress, referring to a number of alarming incidents in international air traffic since the 1980s.

In response to the articles, STAMI initiated a four-year research project in the autumn of 2003 which will cost NOK 5.2 million. Researchers from STAMI are currently monitoring the presence of toxic organophosphates in aero engines.

Pål Molander, Research Director in STAMI, has answered questions from’s readers. You can read his answers below (unfortunately only available in the Norwegian story).

Several occupational groups are exposed to toxic substances in turbine and hydraulic oils. Several hundred sufferers, from excavator operators to lift installers, have come forward to Dagbladet. Many of these clearly have damage to their nervous systems, though doctors are not willing to say why. All of them have worked with hydraulic and turbine oils.

Pilots knocked out by toxic gas

However, for Dagbladet the issue originally concerned aviation. More than three years ago, on 6 April 2003, Dagbladet’s headline read “Pilots knocked out by toxic gas”.

73 human lives were at risk when Captain Niels Gomer and his co-pilot on flight BU925 between Stockholm and Malmö on 12 November 1999 were overcome by a toxic gas on the flight deck during their landing approach to Malmö.

Within a period of a few seconds, both experienced severe dizziness and nausea. Fortunately the co-pilot revived quickly enough to get the aircraft, a BAe 146, with 73 people aboard, safely down to earth.

“There’s no doubt that this was the worst thing I’ve experienced in my whole life. Once I began to feel ill, things happened extremely quickly. If I hadn’t managed to get my oxygen mask on in 15 seconds, I would never have succeeded in getting it on. I was so ill that I couldn’t even lift an arm,” said Niels Gomer to Dagbladet in 2003.

“We’re going to die”

The airline captain said that he was frightened to death every time he flew for a whole year after the accident, and did not hide the fact that the incident could have had fatal consequences.

“If we had been closer to the ground when my co-pilot and I became incapacitated, things could have gone seriously wrong. The aircraft could not have landed itself,” said Niels Gomer.

The worst of it for him was that they didn’t know what was happening to them.

“An engine fire, for example, is something specific which we have been trained to handle, but we had never heard of anything like this, and didn’t realise that we were being intoxicated before we were really ill. My first thought was “We’re going to die here – all 73 of us,” said the captain.

Both the cabin personnel and the 68 passengers on board were severely affected by the unknown toxic gas after landing. All the passengers were remarkably subdued and some were asleep.

“Several of them were tired and had itchy skin. Others were so deeply asleep that it was difficult to wake them up,” said Captain Gomer.

“According to the crew, several of the passengers were in a zombie-like condition,” stated aircraft accident investigator Olle Lundström to Dagbladet.

According to the Swedish Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, the incident must have been caused by toxic gas following an oil leak. Turbine oil used in jet engines contains toxic organophosphates which may become converted into nerve gas at high temperature.

Nerve gas

The turbine oil in aero engines contains chemical substances which can develop into compounds resembling nerve gas at high temperature. Halvor Erikstein, an industrial hygienist in SAFE, has learned a lot about how dangerous these toxic chemicals can be:

“In the event of strong heating, chemical compounds can be formed which act as nerve gasses similar to those developed for chemical warfare. It is believed that this can have contributed to the poisoning of airline crew members,” says Erikstein to Dagbladet.

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