Toxic fumes on airplanes? Lawsuits filed against British airlines over bad air

Originally published on 08 June, 2015

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Seventeen former and current flight crew are planning to sue British airlines for contaminated cabin air, the BBC reports. Workers believe they all fell ill after breathing in fumes that was mixed with engine oil and other toxic chemicals in the air circulating through aircraft. The cases are funded by the Unite union, which represents 20,000 flight staff.

However, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says incidents of smoke or fumes on planes are rare and there is no evidence of there being a high enough concentration of contaminants to cause health problems or even long-term health effects.The Unite union is calling for a public inquiry into contaminated cabin air, according to the BBC. The union has even opened a dedicated legal unit to record and process claims from its membership.

The BBC reports that around around half the air on board most modern commercial jets is pumped into the aircraft through the engines. Those who claim cabin air toxic say when there is a problem with the engine seals, a mix of potentially poisonous gases can reach the cabin. Among these toxic gasses includes TCP, an organophosphate known to be dangerous to human health if there are high enough quantities in the air.

Some cabin crew believe it is exposure to such toxins that over a long period of time that has damaged their long-term health. The problems also reportedly affect the central nervous system and brain. However, the CAA insists there is no evidence to support the claim that there are chemicals at high enough concentrations to cause bodily harm.

Meanwhile, in 2013, an independent group of scientists — the Committee on Toxicity — could not establish a link between contaminated cabin air and ill health. Instead, the committee reported that an explanation for crew falling ill could be the “nocebo” effect, which is a psychological condition where exposure to even a harmless substance can lead to nausea, fatigue and other medical symptoms.

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