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Flights: Insiders suggest 'toxic' threat from the air we breathe onboard – how safe is it?

Fume events may not be something passengers have even heard of let alone are concerned about, however, a series of recent claims has revealed that toxic air on board flights could be posing a major risk to those on board. The news comes following a series of allegations surrounding the air safety on board certain flights.

“On one particular fume event on the 2 January this year there was smoke in the cabin and also the smell of smelly socks,” continues Powell.

“The captain has written a confidential report called the ASR, or air safety report, that the BBC has seen. In it, he says that fume event affected his co-pilot.

“Now, the co-pilot was landing the airport and was only seven miles from Heathrow. He describes him as breathing rapidly and his head was dropping forward. He also said he was not really usefully conscious.”

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The BBC put these claims to British Airways who said it is not true that the first officer passed out. They suggest he was “feeling unwell” but added that “neither of the pilots in the cockpit say he fainted.”

Additionally, the Civil Aviation Authority told the BBC that an aircraft would never be flown if it posed a health or safety risk.

A British Airways spokesperson told Express.co.uk: “We would never operate an aircraft if we believed it posed any health or safety risk to our customers or crew.

“Research commissioned by the European Aviation Safety Agency concluded that the air quality on board aircraft was similar or better than that observed in normal indoor environments.

“We always work closely with industry manufacturers and regulators, analysing all new information and technologies as they come to market.”

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A statement on the CAA’s website reads: “We recognise that there is strong interest in fume events, particularly those that relate to ‘engine bleed air’, which some people have suggested could impact on people’s health. Based on the available data, occurrences relating to engine bleed air are very rare and confirmed incidents form five per cent of the total number of fume event reports we receive each year.

“It is acknowledged that people who experience a fume event (of any type) may report symptoms such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. These symptoms usually resolve, however, once the fumes or smell have disappeared.

“A number of studies have been carried out in this area, including Government-commissioned research. Long term ill health due to any toxic effect from cabin air is understood to be unlikely, although such a link cannot be ruled out.”

Furthermore, data from the CAA found that only 49 percent of the occurrences reported by airlines between 1 December 2014 and 30 November 2016 actually related to bleed air.

Express.co.uk has contacted the CAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency for further comment on industry regulations and how they monitor flight safety.

However, it seems the risk of bleed air is a fear causing wider concern within the industry and has been for some time.

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In a new documentary, currently premiering at Everyman Cinema locations around the UK, Ex-BA pilot Tristan Loraine explores this topic.

He has spent the last 18 years collecting evidence of the danger posed to those on board.

In the documentary, “Everybody Flies”, he used testimonies from crew members and passengers as well as scientific findings to uncover the threat he believes exists.

According to the film summary: “Because the air at high altitudes is too thin to meet our breathing needs, a breathing air supply is needed for passengers and crews.

“On all currently flying commercial jet aircraft (except the Boeing 787), this breathing air supply is taken, unfiltered, from the compression section of the engines in a process known as ‘bleed air’.

“Due to limitations of aircraft engine design, for over 60 years, the aerospace industry has known that this ‘bleed air’ becomes contaminated with toxic chemicals which are produced when the lubricating oils are heated; thus contaminating the ‘bleed air’ (the air we are supplied to breathe) in an unpredictable quantity.”

According to Tristan, “this can happen on all flights” regardless of the airline.

As Tristan previously worked for BA, Express.co.uk approached them for comment. At the time of writing, they have not offered a comment for publication.

In 2011, an American Airlines cabin crew member filed a lawsuit against Boeing, the manufacturer behind many of the commercial aircraft used by mainstream airlines.

According to The Guardian, she sued the manufacturer on the grounds of faulty aircraft design, which she claimed “leaked toxic fumes into the aircraft and left her unable to work”.

She won the case.

At the time, Boeing said: “Our bleed air systems meet all applicable FAA requirements, and an overwhelming body of scientific evidence confirms the safety of them and the air on board our aeroplanes.”

The manufacturer has since implemented a new “clean air” system on all of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Express.co.uk has contacted Boeing for further comment.

During his documentary, Tristan revealed that cabin crew aren’t always aware of where the air comes from, despite concerns that it could have the potential to be fatal.

In 2014 a British Airways cabin crew member named Matt Bass died suddenly aged 34.

According to The Guardian, who wrote a report on the incident in 2017, the initial post-mortem did not reveal a reason for the sudden death.

However, following probing by his family who had been contacted by two aviation experts, it was revealed that Matt had high levels of organophosphate poisoning, one of the many effects of exposure to toxic cabin air, otherwise known as aerotoxic syndrome.

The Guardian writes: “It is a controversial diagnosis, and many in the aviation industry are adamant it doesn’t exist.”

It is important to note there is no sure way to tell if his job was the source of the illness, meanwhile, British Airways said there had been “substantial research into questions around cabin air quality over many years… it has not shown that exposure to potential chemicals in the cabin causes long-term ill health.”


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