Aircraft crew
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Cabin leaks blamed for ‘aerotoxic syndrome'

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A former airline captain has welcomed the recent successful law suit by a German flight attendant who became seriously unwell after an acrid odour occurred in the cabin of a Lufthansa Airbus flying from Frankfurt to Munich in 2013.

The airline captain, Lee Trenchard, a former trainer and examiner pilot who has been unfit for work for almost five years, is launching his own legal action over claims that he was frequently exposed to toxic cabin air and now suffers from “aerotoxic syndrome”.

In most modern aircraft unfiltered bleed air from jet engines supplies the cabin. However, faults with engine seals and seepage can – in an estimated one in 2,000 flights – lead to fumes containing organophosphates (OPs), which are present in the engine oils, entering the cabin. This is known as a fume event.

Deadly poison

OPs can lead to them accumulating in the body and attacking the nervous system and brain cells.

This can produce symptoms including memory loss, depression and other psychiatric effects. As long ago as 1951 British scientists recommended that agricultural OPs be labelled as deadly poison.

Soldiers who served in the First Gulf War and many farmers have claimed they have suffered from being forced to use products that contain OPs. OPs were present in the chemical sprays used on tents where soldiers were billeted, and in sheep dip.

With airline companies choosing not to install detection systems it is difficult to verify whether a contaminated air event has occurred, unless smoke can clearly be seen. But when growing numbers of airline crew began to conclude that their long-term health problems were the result of breathing in unpleasant-smelling air the Aerotoxic Association was born at a parliamentary meeting in 2007.

John Hoyte, an experienced pilot who left the industry due to ill health, said: “Suddenly I was meeting many other victims and despite our brain damage we slowly constructed the logic behind our dirty secret. We have made enemies with the government, Labour and Tory, oil companies, air manufacturers and airlines but we have made progress by widely publicising our concerns, such that today there are far more reports of planes that are forced to land because of fume incidents.”

Last year a Dorset coroner said that fumes in planes posed “consequential damage” to the health of crew following the death in 2012 of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate at the age of 43. His report said: “Testing of samples taken both prior to and after death disclosed symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air.”

Airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority and some medical reports say OPs are not present in dangerous quantities in cabin air.

According to the Aerotoxic Association the fume problems on aircraft can be solved in four ways: an air filtration system; building the aircraft upwards to include an air pressurisation system that does not use air from the engine systems; using non-toxic oil; or installing a crude detector that alerts pilots to leaks. All four incur an additional cost for airlines.

Poor memory

Trenchard, 55, from Stockport, was a pilot for 23 years. In 2009 he claims to have suffered from a fume event when flying a large passenger aircraft to Melbourne. “I submitted a report on the incident in 2009 but when no one in the company seemed interested I did not bother recording two similar incidents.

“Within a couple of years I went from being a very fit, healthy person to always being extremely tired. I was clearly unfit to fly as my memory became so poor that I would scare my co-pilot by asking them if we had received instructions to land less then 20 seconds after the control tower had issued them. I started getting strange looks.”

Following a flight of just 20 minutes in January 2012, Trenchard found it difficult to breathe and needed to stay away from work.

When he visited his GP he was unable to obtain a diagnosis. The doctor at his company also could not explain his illness. He sought support from the Aerotoxic Association.

Dr Jenny Goodman, an expert at Biolab Medical Unit, and aviation medic Dr Michel Mulder both diagnosed Trenchard with aerotoxic syndrome, a term first employed in 1999. Trenchard was instructed not to fly at all.

He is currently in dispute with his employer because he claims not to have been paid since then and is also seeking medical damages.

He is working with six other pilots who are set to launch similar actions. Some are dependent on the income they receive from their former companies

Trenchard said: “I admire their bravery as they run the risk of finding themselves left without any money by these companies.”

Legal success

The trade union Unite is pursuing legal claims on behalf of a further 61 cabin crew, with reports that more are to follow.

Trenchard welcomed the German attendant’s legal success. The attendant became seriously unwell after the June 2013 flight, with symptoms of poisoning, and was off work for six months.

The German Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (BFU) did not regard the incident as serious and did not investigate after it received reports from the attendant and crew, and obtained the aircraft’s technical details.

The attendant filed a lawsuit against BG, the statutory health insurance scheme provided by his employer. In May, BG agreed the incident was a work accident and the court case was cancelled as a result.

The BFU has yet to comment on whether it will now open a full investigation into the accident.

“Some airline staff who have been diagnosed with aerotoxic syndrome have been paid an ill-health pension,” said Trenchard. “This is the first time though that the airline industry has admitted an employee has been made unwell because of aerotoxins.

“That is great news because it could be that forcing airline companies to pay substantial compensation might be the only way to prod them into rectifying the problems caused by contaminated air, which results in aircraft being piloted by people who are allegedly unfit. This may place passengers lives at great risk.”

Photo: Former airline captain Lee Trenchard, from Stockport, is seeking medical damages

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