A GROUP of 17 current and former cabin crew are planning legal action against the airlines which employed them over allegations that “toxic” cabin air has damaged their health.
Funded by the Unite union, which represents 20,000 flight staff, the cabin crew claim that they have fallen ill after breathing in fumes mixed with engine oil and other toxic chemicals. They are now in the early stages of lodging personal injury civil claims against British airlines in the courts.
So-called “bleed air” occurs when air is recycled through the engine of a plane to warm it. If filters are not working properly or washers are defective, chemicals produced by the engines could contaminate the air. Potential contaminates include TCP, an organophosphate known to be dangerous to human health in high enough quantities.
However, the airline industry has insisted that incidents of smoke or fumes on planes are rare, believing there was no evidence of long-term health effects.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), there were 295 separate incidents of fumes or smoke inside a passenger jet operated by a British airline in 2014 and 125 so far in 2015.
A spokesman for the CAA said: “Several expert studies on the issue of cabin air quality have been carried out in recent years including a committee on toxicity paper published in 2013. The overall conclusion has been that there is no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible long-term health effects – although such a link cannot be excluded.”
A series of inquest findings are also being watched closely by the union.
Former British Airways pilot Richard Westgate died in 2012, aged 43, after complaining of long-term health problems. The coroner who investigated his case said that Mr Westgate’s body “disclosed symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air” and wrote to both the airline and the CAA.
Both organisations have claimed that the coroner relied on “selective and contentious evidence”.
A second inquest is due to open into the death of 34-year-old air steward Matthew Bass who died suddenly in 2014. His family says a specialist post-mortem examination found high levels of toxins in his nervous system linked to organophosphates.
A spokesman for British Airways said: “We would not operate an aircraft if we believed it posed a health or safety risk to our customers or crew. There has been substantial research into cabin air quality over the last few years. In summary, the research has found no evidence that exposure to potential chemicals in the cabin causes long-term ill-health”.
Laurie Price, an independent aviation consultant, said that the problem had so far affected only a small number of people.
“It happened more in the 1970s and 1980s, when oil prices were high and airlines tried to save money by recirculating the air more than once rather than dumping it out of the back,” he said.
“This has been going on for a long time. There are some pilots who claim they have had some quite nasty side-effects from the cabin air, but they are still small numbers. Some people are more susceptible to this kind of thing than others.”
A Unite spokesman called for a public inquiry into the issue.
He added: “It is quite clear that the industry needs to do more to monitor the quality of cabin air.”