You are being gassed when you travel by air

Alarming new reports show that flight crew and passengers are exposed to toxic gasses while flying.

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( In the spring of 2003, Dagbladet commenced a 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.

Recently, Chris van Netten, Professor of Toxicology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has made discoveries that reinforce suspicions that several thousand pilots and cabin crew throughout the world have incurred permanent neurological damage as a result of toxic gasses penetrating into the cabin air in connection with oil leaks in aircraft engines.

Found toxic substances in all aircraft

On 2 June, van Netten sent a disturbing letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander.

Van Netten has analysed a number of roof filters from the cockpits of British-registered Boeing 757 airliners to determine whether they contain traces of the neurotoxin tricresylphosphate (TCP). The professor also analysed samples taken from the cabin walls of the same aircraft. The samples were sent to him by the British Air Line Pilots Association, BALPA.

Van Netten has now raised the alarm after finding unmistakeable traces of TCP in all seven aircraft from which he received samples. TCP is known to cause paralysis and other permanent neurological damage in humans.

British and American investigations
As a result of Dagbladet’s series of articles three years ago, the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health (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.

After several years of pressure by the Aviation Organophosphate Information Site (AOPIS), the American Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has also initiated a research project which is to investigate so-called organophosphate poisoning in airline employees.

AOPIS is a non-commercial international group of aviation personnel who wish to make airline staff aware of the hazards connected with toxic fumes originating either from oil leaks or electrical equipment. Several thousand cabin crew are believed to have sustained permanent damage as a result of such poisoning. AOPIS currently has about 1500 sufferers registered in its organisation.

The Ministry of Transport in the United Kingdom has also set up an investigative committee to look into the problem of contaminated cabin air.

Chris van Netten is the FAA’s senior physician in the American project. In his letter to the British Minister of Transport, he writes that the samples “quite clearly indicate that aircrew are exposed to these toxins in their working environment”. Van Netten goes on to say that he hopes British authorities make this a high priority in their investigative work.

Hazard to air safety
The British Committee on Toxicity (COT) has asked Sarah Mackenzie-Ross, a neuropsychologist at University College London, to submit a report following a clinical study of 27 pilots.

This report also adds weight to the hypothesis that compounds resembling nerve gas in cabin and flight deck air have caused irreparable neurological damage in aircrew.
The report indicates that cognitive failure in exposed pilots is a significant safety hazard.

20 of the 27 pilots were subjected to fat and blood analyses. All showed traces of one or more toxic organic compounds such as benzene and toluene, while traces of nickel were found in all Boeing 757 pilots.

The presence of the toxic organophosphate TCP was confirmed in three of the pilots.

The pilots were also subjected to 30 neuropsychological tests which revealed that the pilots’ condition can have an effect on air safety.

The pilots reported widespread cognitive failure after incidents involving contaminated onboard air:

There were reports that pilots were unable to respond to simple instructions from the air trafic control  and failed to follow procedures in connection with take-off and landing. Critical information about height, speed, course and altitude also escaped their notice.

“We’re going to die”
Dagbladet has previously described the safety hazards connected with dangerous gasses in aircraft. More than three years ago, on 6 April 2003, the newspaper’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.

The airline captain said that he was frightened to death every time he flew for a whole year after the incident, 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.

Passengers like zombies
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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