Holiday jet fume risk to passengers
DOZENS of passenger airline pilots have been poisoned and left unable to carry on flying because of contaminated air leaking into cockpits and cabins.
Government-appointed researchers will this week disclose shocking new details of hundreds of incidents where pilots and cabin staff were allegedly poisoned by faulty air-systems during flights across Europe.
The government-backed Committee on Toxicity (COT) will this week hold a public hearing on the claims that hundreds of crew have been affected by fumes seeping into pressurised cabins mid-flight.
New figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday reveal ministers were warned of 10 serious incidents on flights on the short-hop BAe 146 model alone last year.
They included at least one in Edinburgh and three mid-air crises where the co-pilot was incapacitated by suspected contamination of the plane's air conditioning system. Several more involved cabin staff being forced to use oxygen masks after the flight-deck was filled with fumes.
Civil Aviation Authority records published this year detail a series of in-flight emergencies, including at least nine incidents where fumes may have put a pilot out of action.
The list included:
• A British Airways flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow last September, during which the flight-crew was hit by "noxious fumes, strong taste of oil fumes in their mouths, which also developed into a burning in the mouth and nose with a slight stinging in the eyes";
• A FlyBe flight on February 2, 2006, where the first officer became incapacitated during the aircraft's ascent;
• A CitiExpress flight on July 25, 2005, where a flight crew member and two cabin attendants felt dizzy and unwell during take-off and cruise.
COT members were ordered to investigate after pilots' union Balpa complained that hundreds of its members working for a variety of airlines had suffered acute and chronic illnesses, after allegedly inhaling fumes from engine oils during flights.
Balpa, which claims the risks had caused "significant flight safety issues", has waged a long campaign to have its accusations taken seriously by the authorities. The union has collected bundles of evidence of health problems among its members, including problems with skin, digestion, breathing and nervous systems.
The symptoms range from short-term problems, such as headaches and nausea, to more chronic difficulties.
Balpa has earmarked the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757 - hugely popular as charter planes in Britain and Europe during the holiday season - as the two aircraft types with the highest reported number of incidents.
The union has compiled a database of 770 contamination reports over the past 20 years - including 262 between 2001 and 2005 alone. But the union still believes crews are "under-reporting" incidents, while many are unaware of the effects of cabin air contamination.
A study published earlier this year suggested the problems are not confined to cabin crew, and that almost 200,000 passengers might be breathing in the fumes during flights every year - though their effects may be limited to flu-like symptoms.
The fumes are believed to enter the cabin along with air taken in by systems to ensure the air within the cabin remains breathable for passengers and crew, even at high altitudes.
The filtered air supply, known as "bleed air", is highlighted as the most likely source of oil fumes. Previous studies have revealed that in some aircraft with poor engine design, leaky seals or a poor maintenance record, this air can become contaminated with fumes from the engines.
The oils used in aircraft engines contain organophosphates, which can cause disorders in the nervous system. But airlines and aircraft manufacturers insist they are not present in a strong-enough concentration to cause damage to passengers or crew.
The BAe 146 - used as the Queen's Flight to ferry the royals and ministers around the country - is highlighted as one of the most reported models, along with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320s.
COT members reviewed the Balpa evidence and interviewed representatives of plane manufacturers and the major airlines. An interim "discussion paper" seen by Scotland on Sunday, reveals the majority of pilots who underwent psychological tests as part of the investigation had experienced contamination incidents.
"Under-reporting reduces the amount of medical data available to properly investigate the medical issue associated with cabin air contamination," a Balpa spokesman said.
"The BAe 146 has been plagued with fume problems since its early days of service over 20 years ago. If reporting had been more accurately done, it is just possible that the 146 issue might have been resolved."
But transport minister Gillian Merron said CAA safety research into fume events concluded that "no single component or set of components can be identified which, at conceivable concentrations, would definitely cause the symptoms reported in cabin air quality incidents".
She said acids which could act as "irritants" were found on flights, and the CAA had brought in troubleshooting actions to minimise the potential for fume events.
Merron added: "Since then we have commissioned the independent Committee on Toxicity to conduct a comprehensive evidence review and we shall be guided by the COT conclusions and recommendations."
A spokesman for BA said: "While we know of incidences where the crew have raised concerns about fumes, investigations carried out in conjunction with the CAA found there were no health implications.
"Further studies on our Boeing 757 fleet were carried out by an independent specialist. They concluded that oil compounds in the cabin were well below the toxicological threshold for humans."
A CAA spokesman said investigators had probed the 757 and BAe 146, but they had found "no significant level of toxins" from engine oils.
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