Are you aware of the risk of aerotoxic syndrome from prolonged exposure to contaminate air within an aircraft? If not, read on.
When you board an airliner you are entering a sealed environment in which cabin air quality is a deciding factor in your enjoyment of the flight. As a passenger, your flight may be spoiled by the over-enthusiastic use of the perfume or aftershave of someone sitting next to you, or it may be marred by the opposite problem – a lack of personal hygiene. Many air passengers can also attest to woes caused by a crowded space within which there are limited or malfunctioning toilet facilities on a long-haul flight!
However, these are all minor irritants when compared to toxic cabin air that has been contaminated by chemicals and particles due to faults within the engine air systems. Such contamination can lead to ‘fume events‘ i.e. when the aircraft cabin fills with visible or invisible fumes, and the physical effects can be the cause of what has become known as aerotoxic syndrome.
What is Aerotoxic Syndrome?
Aerotoxic syndrome is the name given to physical ill health caused by mild or severe poisoning of the body with carbon monoxide and/or organophosphates, breathed in while aboard an aircraft either as a passenger or as one of the crew.
The syndrome is characterised by a range of symptoms, including headaches, dizziness, nausea, and difficulties with concentration and memory. Long term exposure to contaminated air an adverse health risk and have been a hidden occupational disease for pilots and cabin crew members for years. In extreme cases, exposure to cabin air toxins can lead to neurological damage and even death.
What causes Aerotoxic Syndrome?
Faults within the aircraft’s bleed air system can lead to carbon monoxide or organophosphates entering the cabin through the air conditioning system, exposing passengers and crew to potentially harmful toxins.
Airline crew members are aware of the risks and there have been numerous occurrences over the years during which minute cracks in the engine seals of jet engines have leaked toxic fumes into the fume events and sick crew. These events have sometimes led to the subject being highlighted to their employers and the medical authorities.
Aerotoxic Syndrome in 2 Minutes
Pilot & Consultant John Hoyte
The former commercial pilot and ATPL holder and author John Hoyte has written extensively on this subject. His aviation career was brought to an abrupt end by aerotoxic syndrome after he became very ill through exposure while flying the BAe146.
Since 1999, the website Aerotoxic.org has been his main platform for informing the aviation industry and the public. Having eventually recovered from his illness, John has set himself the task of spreading awareness of the risks and to persuade the aircraft manufacturers and airlines to cooperate in the redesign of aircraft air systems.
I have met John and spoken to him many times. He is earnest and sincere in his attempts to draw attention to the phenomenon to prevent other pilots, cabin crew, and air passengers from being put at risk of the illness he had to endure. He has worked for many years on his campaign to highlight the problem, at great personal and financial cost to himself.
After earning recognition for his expertise on the subject and alerting enough other experts to the problem, he is now able to offer his services as a consultant to airlines, aviation companies, the media, consumer groups, and all other interested parties.
Contact John for more information:
Chairman Aerotoxic Association Ltd. The Charity 2007
Aerotoxic Solutions Consultancy Ltd. 2021
Former BAe 146 Training Captain
Meanwhile, millions of air passengers who travel on the world’s airlines are probably blissfully unaware of the risk of contaminated cabin air and therefore they will not know that individuals and companies are now working towards solutions, both in terms of early detection of carbon monoxide and organophosphates within the cabin air, and changes to aircraft engines to remove the risk of contamination in the first place.
As the awareness of aerotoxic syndrome grows, more and more people are speaking out about this condition.
Cabin Air Quality
The quality of the aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers and several factors can contribute to poor air quality. One is the recirculation of air throughout the cabin. To conserve fuel, many airlines recycle a portion of the air inside the cabin. This means that contaminants such as bacteria and viruses can build up over time. In addition, the close quarters on an aeroplane can lead to a higher concentration of environmental contaminants such as dust and pollen. Finally, some research has suggested that engine exhaust can also seep into the cabin through gaps in the aircraft’s seal system.
There are a few factors that contribute to poor air quality on aeroplanes. First, the air inside an airliner is recycled about every two to three minutes, so it’s constantly recirculating contaminated air. Second, there are often many people flying together in close quarters, which increases the risk of airborne illnesses being spread. Finally, the pressurisation and humidity levels inside an aircraft can also play a role in making passengers more susceptible to illness.
While the quality of air inside an airliner is not always perfect, it is important to remember that most airlines take great care to ensure that their passengers are comfortable and safe. Airlines are not complacent but on this subject they do need to do more.
CO – Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning is a serious concern for anyone who spends a significant amount of time aboard an aircraft. This colourless, odourless gas is produced whenever fuel is burned, and it can quickly build up to dangerous levels in enclosed spaces. When inhaled, carbon monoxide interferes with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, it can lead to loss of consciousness and even death.
Private pilots are well aware of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning aboard light aircraft. A forward mounted engine that provides heat to the aircraft cockpit poses the risk of CO poisoning from any faults within the aircraft engine’s exhaust system. Carbon monoxide detectors are fitted to most light aircraft to warn the pilots of the presence of any such leaks and pilots are trained to recognise the symptoms of exposure.
Additionally, passengers should be aware of the risks and know how to identify the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. By taking these precautions, everyone can help keep themselves safe from this potentially deadly gas.
Changing Designs & Installing Detectors
We are used to using carbon monoxide detectors in our homes and recreational vehicles. Travellers sometimes take CO detectors with them for use in hotels. Private pilots use CO detectors in their aircraft too, but how many of us think to use them aboard passenger aircraft?
We rely on the airlines to keep us safe on every flight and the onus is on the aircraft manufacturers and the airlines to ensure that the mechanics of the air circulation systems within airliners is such that it doesn’t use air that could be contaminated by carbon monoxide or any other gases, chemicals, or particulates that could be a risk to our health.
It’s in their interest to be open and transparent about this, even if it means an expensive re-design of certain aircraft types and the installation of detectors in passenger cabins that inform not only the air and cabin crew of the air quality but also the passengers, reassuring them that the air they are breathing is clean.