Study finds link between plane air and health issues

Flying a plane should come with a health warning, according to researchers.

A study has found a link between plane air and health issues.
A study has found a link between plane air and health issues.

A new study led by the University of Stirling is said to be the first of its kind to look in-depth at the health of aircrew suspected to have been exposed to contaminated air during their work.

It showed a “clear link” between being exposed to air supplies contaminated by engine oil and other aircraft fluids, and a variety of health problems, researchers said.

The scientists examined more than 200 aircrew and found many had been exposed to a number of substances through aircrafts’ contaminated air. They uncovered a clear pattern of acute and chronic symptoms, ranging from headaches and dizziness to breathing and vision problems.

One test looked at pilots’ health and showed 88 per cent of the 219 people examined were aware of exposure to aircraft contaminated air.

Almost 65 per cent reported specific health effects while 13 per cent had died or experienced chronic ill-health.

Another test looked at 15 oil leak incidents. Some 80 per cent involved fumes only and all of the events took place when the aircraft was preparing for, or in, flight.

More than nine in ten (93 per cent) of the incidents involved symptoms ranging from in-flight impairment to incapacitation and almost 75 per cent included adverse symptoms in more than one crew member, with anywhere between ten and 23 different symptoms reported in relation to almost half of the events.

Dr Susan Michaelis, of the University of Stirling’s occupational and environmental health research group, said: “This research provides very significant findings relevant to all aircraft workers and passengers globally.

“There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship linking health effects to a design feature that allows the aircraft air supply to become contaminated by engine oils and other fluids in normal flight. This is a clear occupational and public health issue with direct flight-safety consequences.”

Professor Vyvyan Howard, Professor of Pathology and Toxicology at the University of Ulster, who assisted with the research, said: “What we are seeing here is aircraft crew being repeatedly exposed to low levels of hazardous contaminants from the engine oils in bleed air, and to a lesser extent this also applies to frequent fliers.

“We know from a large body of toxicological scientific evidence that such an exposure pattern can cause harm and, in my opinion, explains why aircrew are more susceptible than average to associated illness.”