Fears aeroplanes polluted with ‘toxic air’ from engines

Health and safety experts in France are investigating whether there is a possible link between aircraft air and symptoms reported by flight crews.

Fears over toxic air were referred to French health agency ANSES in 2019 by unions representing pilots and cabin crew as well as by the Association of Victims of Aerotoxic Syndrome (AVSA).

ANSES maintains the amount of evidence needed to designate a syndrome linked to pollutants exposure is low.

A judicial probe has been launched in France investigating claims of “involuntary injury” as well as lives being put at risk amid reports of “acute or chronic contamination of pressurised aircraft air by toxic substances”

AVSA says “on almost all airliners, the air breathed on board is taken from the engines”, claiming it is contaminated by the oil used to lubricate them.

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The campaign group insists such substances include “toxic additives” with some contaminants measuring just a billionth of a metre.

Cockpit crew and flight attendants have reported experiencing headaches, dizziness, digestive and respiratory problems, which have been grouped together under the term “aerotoxic syndrome”.

A panel of experts cited in an ANSES report agreed “numerous” pollutants are present in aircraft cabins, but the committee insists there isn’t enough data to fully assess the health risks.

ANSES maintains there isn’t enough evidence to designate a syndrome arising from exposure to pollutants or compounds from engine oil, known as a “fume” event.

In its report, the health agency says: “In its expert appraisal, ANSES was unable to draw any conclusions as to the origin of the pollutants detected in cabin air or their concentration levels, because the quality of the available data is insufficient.”

The report also notes: “While the symptoms described by the individuals concerned are not in question, the agency stresses that the ‘aerotoxic syndrome’ is not yet a consensual nosological entity.”

Nosology is a branch of medical science dealing with disease classification.

More than 30,000 people, including pilots and flight attendants, work in aircraft cabins and cockpits in France, according to ANSES.

Cabin crew can work irregular hours as well as through the night, which are already known for having an impact on health.

Exposure to ionising radiation from cosmic rays and sunlight, which increase with altitude, can also take their toll on flight staff.

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An ANSES analysis of various studies also led experts to observe there is an increased incidence of certain types of cancer, including leukaemia, among flight crew members.

ANSES points to studies and the International Agency for Research on Cancer as identifying solar and cosmic radiation as possibly being the cause.

A number of research projects are under way in France and elsewhere in Europe, including one at the French Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute (IRSN) on cancer deaths and non-cancerous diseases related to exposure to cosmic radiation.

CAQIII is another scheme funded by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and the European Commission examining the possible contamination of aircraft air.

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