Air crews fear toxic leak effects

Thursday, 28 September, 2000, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK

Air crews fear toxic leak effects

Many airline staff believe sick aircraft syndrome is a reality By Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment correspondent and presenter of Costing the Earth

Airline pilots and flight attendants in several countries say toxic leaks on aircraft are a health and safety risk.

They say engine lubricants containing organophosphates (OPs) sometimes leak into the cabin air supply.

The UK Government is to commission a comprehensive study of the evidence, after some airline staff have been incapacitated in flight, and others forced to give up flying.

The fears are reported in Costing the Earth, BBC Radio Four's environment programme, which has spoken to several flight deck and cabin crew members who have been affected.

Anxiety attacks

One British pilot, who refused to be identified, tells the programme: "After a holiday I returned to flying, and I realised there really was something wrong with me.

"I was beginnning to get short-term memory loss, I was developing a stutter.

"Every time I flew a plane I got influenza-like symptoms, including being bunged up in the head after about half an hour of flight.

"I frequently found myself feeling so poorly that I couldn't tell my first officer how bad I felt.

"I was becoming very tired, and suffering an increasing number of anxiety attacks."

After being grounded for three months he returned to work, and his symptoms immediately returned.

He says: "The suggestion of long-term OP contamination was made to me then, and it certainly seems to be the case, because as I've been away from it I've gradually recovered, and I'm virtually back to normal now."

An Australian pilot told Costing the Earth: "I frequently smelt a strange odour on the BAe 146 aircraft - a vomit-type smell, like dirty socks, or an acrid oily smell.

"It straightway caused me to get headaches, fatigue, occasional nausea, loss of concentration and upper respiratory irritations.

"Pilots shouldn't be flying in that condition, with their ability to do their job impaired. But it frequently occurred."

The pilot pointed out that the labels on the cans containing the lubricants warn users that prolonged or repeated breathing of mists from the oil, or skin contact, can cause nervous system disorders, and also warn of possible irreversible health effects.

Investigation demand

Bruce D'Ancey, the technical secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association, is concerned at the possible implications of lubricants using OPs, highly toxic chemicals already blamed for causing neurological damage in farmers and other people.

He says: "What we are in is a situation where we have OPs in engine oil, a known method by which they can enter the cabin through the compressor system, and we know they are hazardous to health.

"That should surely be enough to cause an investigation."

In a statement to Costing the Earth, the UK Civil Aviation Authority said it had received no reports over the last five years of OP leaks on UK-registered commercial passenger aircraft.

But if any evidence arose from investigations by the Swedish, Australian and UK Governments, it said it would act upon it.

Shane Enright, of the International Transport Workers' Federation, knows of hundreds of crew members who have complained of OP problems.

'Frequent flyer risk'

He believes all commercial jets are potentially at risk, because all have basically the same ventilation systems.

He also believes aircraft manufacturers know that leaks are happening, but refuse to acknowledge they are aware of the situation.

Senator John Woodley, who chairs the Australian inquiry into OPs in aircraft, says a further question is the cumulative effect of long-term exposure to very small amounts of the chemicals - a problem for frequent flyers, and for crew members.

Although the UK House of Lords is inquiring into the problem, the Environment Minister Michael Meacher has announced a study of the evidence that will begin before the inquiry has reported.

Costing the Earth is broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 2100 BST on 28 September.

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