Cabin fever – why flying can seriously damage your health

July 25, 2012 by
Health   2 Comments

When 37-year-old Samantha Sabatino and family jetted off on the trip of a lifetime to Florida they had no idea that their dream holiday would quickly turn into a nightmare.

Halfway through the flight Sam’s six-year-old daughter complained of a funny smell in the cabin and was violently sick. ‘I noticed that several other passengers were also being sick and there was a long queue for the loo’ explains Sam.

By the time the plane touched down the Sabatino family had ‘cabin fever’ – they were feeling sick, drowsy and all of them had headaches. What Sam did not know was that all 40 passengers on board the airliner had been affected by contaminated air on that trip.

Most people believe when they get on a plane the air they breathe has been purified-yet nothing could be further from the truth.

On an aircraft air is drawn out of the compression section of the engine and then cooled. That air then enters the cabin where it is mixed with recirculated air that has been passed through filters designed to remove only bacteria and viruses.

The problem is that these filters do not remove the fumes or vapours which may be emitted from the engine if there is fault. As a result toxic chemicals such as deadly organophosphates may then contaminate the cabin air supply causing a condition known as aerotoxic syndrome.

Experts believe that these chemicals affect the body in the same way as nerve gas does. Clinical trials on farm workers who have been exposed to organophosphates have shown that they disrupt the neurotransmitters involved in muscle function.

High level exposure affects the heart and lungs and can cause tremor in the limbs. They can also cause cognitive impairment, disorientation and poor memory.

Pilots and cabin crew have known about these fume events for over thirty years but many feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke up. However, recently twenty pilots paid for blood tests and were found to have higher than average levels of chemicals associated with jet engine oil in their blood and fat.

Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross has published several papers describing health effects seen in different occupational groups exposed to organophosphates. ‘We measured the pilots’ cognitive function and their mood state and we saw real evidence of impairment’ she says.

Dee Passon worked as a cabin service director for more than 20 years but her health deteriorated so badly that she became too ill to work. ‘My mental ability has been severely affected so that now I can’t remember things and get exhausted if I have to speak for any length of time’ she explains. Today Dee still suffers from severe nervous system damage which her doctor says is consistent with long term chemical exposure.

Dee believes her symptoms were caused by organophosphates leaking into the cabin. ‘When I first saw my GP, right from the word go he put ‘investigations into aerotoxic syndrome’ on my medical records but the airline would not believe me’ she says.

She decided to discover how many other cabin crew were affected and set up a website to gather more information about the condition. ‘It included an online health survey where cabin crew staff could register in confidence their exact symptoms and if they were related to fume events’ she says.

‘I got more than 900 responses reporting a wide range of health problems including brain haemorrhages, cancer and heart problems. The real worry is that it is not just pilots and cabin crew who are affected but the travelling public too-particularly children’ she says.

Dr Jenny Goodman from the Biolab Medical Unit which specialises in nutritional and environmental medicine believes passengers are at risk. ‘I know of many frequent flyers who have come to me with symptoms such as Chronic Fatigue and when tested their blood is often high in organophosphates.

‘Children are even more at risk because their livers and nervous systems are not properly developed and so they are more sensitive to toxins than adults’ she says.

It would seem that one way to sort out the problem would be to devise a foolproof blood test which would prove that an individual had been exposed to chemicals.

Experts at the University of Washington have been doing just that – working on producing a biomarker in the blood which will show precisely whether or not someone has been exposed to toxic chemicals within the past three weeks.

‘We have found the enzyme in the liver which binds to the toxin so we can now track it in the blood’ says Professor Clem Furlong who is leading the research.

The Department of Transport still maintains there is no problem because they believe fume events occur in only one in 2000 flights. ‘Concerns have been raised in the media about the possibility of air crew and passengers being exposed to fumes in cabin air.

‘We take any risk to pilots and cabin crew very seriously and continue to work closely with the Aviation Health Working Group on research in this area’ said their spokesperson.

Dee Passon however has no confidence in the authorities. ‘Our research shows it would only add around 10p extra per ticket to cover the cost of fitting proper filtration systems. I think most passengers would be more than happy to pay that to safeguard their health. At the very least they deserve to know the truth’ she says.

Samantha Sabatino is still unwell. ‘I had never even heard of aerotoxic syndrome until we came back to the UK and my GP diagnosed it. You take it for granted when you get on a plane you are breathing air which has been filtered properly-not contaminated by the engines.

If I had known about the risks I could have made an informed decision whether or not to fly. Somebody has to take responsibility for the health and safety of the travelling public’.

How can you tell if there is a fume event?

Smells indicating a fume event can vary from being similar to dirty socks, wet dog, chemicals, oils or even vomit

Short term symptoms of exposure can include blurred or tunnel vision, disorientation, shaking and tremors, loss of balance or vertigo, seizures, loss of consciousness.

Some people report a cough or nausea others have increased heart rate. Long term symptoms include numbness in fingertips, memory impairment, headaches, dizziness, depression and chronic fatigue.

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About the Author

Liz Bestic is an artist and award-winning journalist; she specialises in consumer health matters.

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2 Comments on "Cabin fever – why flying can seriously damage your health"

  1. Ray Ronan July 25, 2012 at 10:53 am · Reply

    Hi Liz,
    I am an A320 captain, I have written a book, Seconds To Disaster, with Author Glenn Meade and we tackle among others issues, the Toxic Cabin problem.
    Could I ask you for a review of our book please if you are interested and or have the time?
    Best wishes and well done on helping to make the public aware.


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