A pressure group committed to raising awareness about air quality in aircraft has called for a public enquiry into the ongoing exposure of passengers and crew members to contaminated air while travelling on UK registered public transport aircraft. The group said their action has the support of major government opposition parties.

The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE), an organization established in 2006 that describes itself as a “global coalition of health and safety advocates committed to raising awareness and finding solutions to poor air quality in aircraft,” said the action, announced on their website yesterday, 26th March, has the backing of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the T&G Transport Workers’ Union.

Claiming to speak for a membership totalling over half a million aviation workers from 20 organizations on 3 continents, the GCAQE said that toxic fumes leaking into aircraft cabins puts thousands of air travellers at risk every year.

The organization claims there is substantial evidence that oil and lubricant based chemicals like tricresyl phosphate and tributyl phosphate are leaking daily into aircraft cabin air supplies. These chemicals are known to affect the brain and the immune system, they said in a prepared statement.

British Ministers have said so-called “fume events” affects about 1 in 2000 flights, but the organization claims these are happening more frequently, even daily, and this has been the case for “over three decades”.

The group refers to an alleged secret agreement made in 1993 between aircraft manufacturer British Aerospace (BAe) and two Australian airlines no longer in business, that uses expressions like:

“obnoxious oil and other … fumes affecting the passenger cabins of some or all of the aircraft,” and “the cabin environment problem”.

The alleged secret agreement was recently revealed by an Australian Senator, said the GCAQE.

GCAQE co-chairman and former airline pilot, Captain Tristan Loraine said:

“International airlines continue to preside over a global scandal.”

“Not only are they supplying the travelling public with unfiltered engine air to breathe, known for decades to sometimes become contaminated with toxic chemicals; they don’t tell the public there is a risk of exposure or when they have been exposed.” Loraine added that:

“This has to be a breach of their human rights.”

He said that no UK aircraft has a system to detect and warn about contaminated air, and thousands of contamination events go unreported every year.

The GCAQE accuses the Civil Aviation Authorty and the Department for Transport of failing to protect the travelling public, despite overwhelming evidence that exposure to contaminated cabin air causes “unacceptable risks to health and flight safety”.

Precautionary principles should be applied, said Loraine, “solutions to resolve this problem exist and they know it,” he added.

“Only a full public inquiry can get to the facts and protect airline passengers and crew alike,” urged Loraine.

According to BBC News, the pressure group has the support of pilots’ unions, who believe the leaks have been causing dizziness and lethargy to air travellers who are not being told about the issue.

They are concerned about the fact that some of the air that circulates in the cabin of aircraft comes from the main engine after it has been cooled and mixed with re-circulated air. This process removes bacteria but not oil vapour which can get in via faulty seals.

The T&G Transport Workers’ Union is calling for all airlines to fit onboard detectors and additional filters.

There appears to be disagreement about the frequency and levels of air contamination.

The BBC reported that the Department for Transport is collecting air samples to find out the extent to which chemicals are circulating in aircraft cabins during flights.

In June 2000, a report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, related an incident on a BAe 146 aircraft flying over Sweden where toxic fumes caused the passengers to fall asleep (many of them could not be woken on landing). The problem was traced to faulty seals that had allowed engine oil containing toxic organophosphates to enter the cabin air supply.

The incident was not a one-off, as a follow up investigation by the UK’s Observer newspaper allegedly revealed several similar incidents.

Sources: GCAQE press release, BBC News, Guardian Unlimited (4 June 2000).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD