What’s the Problem?
The air you breathe on airplanes comes directly from the jet engines. Known as “bleed air,” it is generally safe, unless there is a mechanical problem. When such an issue does occur, toxic engine oil fumes leak into the air supply and into the plane’s cabin. This is what is referred to as a “fume event.”
Jet engine oil fumes contain tricresyl phosphate, a highly toxic chemical that can damage the nervous system. Heated oil can also produce carbon monoxide, a odorless gas that can kill you.
LA Times Investigation Reveals Epidemic of Toxic Airplane Fume Events
A recent Los Angeles Times investigation found that vapors from oil and other fluids seep into planes with alarming frequency across all airlines. Such events are documented in airport paramedic records, NASA safety reports, federal aviation records and other filings, the Times found.
Between January 2018 and December 2019, NASA identified at least 362 fume events reported by airline crew members, with nearly 400 pilots, flight attendants and passengers receiving medical attention, according to the Times. During at least 73 of these flights, pilots were required to use emergency oxygen. Nearly 50 pilots were described as impaired to the point of being unable to perform their duties.
In 2019, at least 46 people reported symptoms during fume events on JetBlue flights, the Times found. On more than 50 occasions during the same year, JetBlue flights were forced to make emergency landings or diversions or return to the gate because of toxic fumes. One JetBlue plane had 4 separate fume events in a single week in May 2019.
In the era before the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 5 flights a day in the U.S. experienced a fume event, according to aviation records. However, no government agency tracks fume events or how often people become sick or impaired.
A 2015 study conducted at Kansas State University found that fume events are 6 times higher than that reported by the FAA — about 1 out of every 5,000 flights. A top Boeing official said in a recent deposition that the study’s findings were accurate.
The Aerotoxic Association estimates that “a quarter of flights suffer slight but significant contamination.” However, given that contamination may be continuous throughout a flight “the total exposure might end up as much as after a brief fume event”.
Airplane Fume Event Symptoms
Short-Term Health Effects
- Neurotoxic symptoms: blurred or tunnel vision, nystagmus, disorientation, shaking and tremors, loss of balance and vertigo, seizures, loss of consciousness, parathesias;
- Neuropsychological or psychotoxic symtoms: memory impairment, headache, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion and feeling intoxicated;
- Gastro-intestinal symptoms: nausea, vomiting;
- Respiratory symptoms: cough, breathing difficulties (shortness of breath), tightness in chest, respiratory failure requiring
- Cardiovascular symptoms: increased heart rate and palpitations;
- Irritation of eyes, nose and upper airways.
- Other symptoms are being reported by crew and passengers
Long-Term Health Effects
- Neurotoxic symptoms: numbness (fingers, lips, limbs), parathesias;
- Neuropsychological or psychotoxic symptoms: memory impairment, forgetfulness, lack of coordination, severe headaches, dizziness, sleep disorders;
- Gastro-intestinal symptoms: salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea;
- Respiratory symptoms: breathing difficulties (shortness of breath), tightness in chest, respiratory failure, susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections;
- Cardiovascular symptoms: chest pain, increased heart rate and palpitations;
- Skin symptoms: skin itching and rashes, skin blisters (on uncovered body parts), hair loss;
- Irritation of eyes, nose and upper airways;
- Sensitivity: signs of immunosuppression, chemical sensitivity leading to acquired or multiple chemical sensitivity
- General: weakness and fatigue (leading to chronic fatigue), exhaustion, hot flashes, joint pain, muscle weakness and pain.
What is Aerotoxic Syndrome?
Aerotoxic syndrome or ‘cabin contamination’ is a severe health condition caused by exposure to ‘pyrolysed’ jet oil fumes, kerosene fumes, carbon monoxide, or the presence of insecticide residue (or direct spraying before landing) on commercial flights, according to the Aerotoxic Team Global Network. The term was first introduced in a 1999 study by Dr. Harry Hoffman (U.S.), Professor Dr. Chris Winder (AUSTRALIA) and Jean-Christophe Balouet PhD (FRANCE).
Although the toxicity of heated jet oil has been known for decades, aerotoxic syndrome has still not gained official acceptance in the aviation medical community. While the Aerotoxic Association states that numerous studies have found clear evidence of contaminated cabin air being the cause of chronic health problems, various government and regulatory authorities have commissioned research which, while acknowledging a link between contaminated cabin air and chronic health problems, have stopped short of accepting causation.
Aerotoxic Syndrome Symptoms
- Breathing difficulties
- Muscle aching
- Central nervous system damage
- Breathing problems
- Vision problems
- Lack of concentration
- Memory impairment
- Cognitive problems
- And more
The FAA in 2009 funded a medical guide (PDF) for treating health problems associated with aerotoxic syndrome. The report, Exposure to Aircraft Bleed Air Contaminants Among Airline Workers: a Guide for Health Care Providers, warns that “neurological, psychiatric, respiratory, systemic, and dermal symptoms … may last for years after the exposure.”
What is TCP?
Tricresyl phosphate, or TCP, is an organophosphate that is added to engine oil. The scientific community has known since the 1930s that TCP is toxic to the central nervous system. Researchers say that extreme heat, such as that produced by a jet engine, makes oil fumes even more toxic to breathe. TCP can have immediate health effects such as headaches and dizziness, in addition to long-term effects including tremors and memory problems.
The effects of breathing engine oil fumes vary from one person to the next, said Christiaan van Netten, a toxicologist and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. “The same goes for the pilots,” van Netten said. “That’s why one pilot might feel incapacitated and the other pilot is able to keep working.”
Many Jet Airliners Unequipped to Filter Toxic Cabin Air: KPIX CBS SF Bay Area Video
Why Don’t Airplane Cabins Have Air Sensors?
A 2002 study ordered by the U.S. Congress recommended requiring carbon monoxide sensors on all passenger airplanes. However, most planes today are still not equipped with the devices.
Airlines have been asking Boeing to install air sensors for years. But the company decided against developing the technology since it could prove damaging in lawsuits by sick passengers and crew members, according to internal emails obtained by The Times. One such internal memo by a Boeing executive described it as a “risk” to give air sensors to even 1 airline.
“Flight attendant, pilot unions, and congressional supporters could use this effort as evidence that sensors are needed and … to drive their agenda forward to have bleed air sensors required on all aircraft,” the memo read.
Airplane Fume Event Timeline
February 26, 2019 – Alaska Airlines Flight 1506 to Orange County was forced to return to Seattle because fumes in the cockpit made the pilots dizzy and nauseated. The captain had to turn over the plane’s controls to the copilot during the landing while both were wearing oxygen masks, according to NASA. Paramedics took the pilots and a flight attendant to the hospital; the captain stated that it was his third fume event.
“We collected our bags and followed the paramedics to the gate area where they evaluated us. The three of us all went to the hospital for further evaluation,” the captain said. “We all tested positive for high CO [carbon monoxide] levels in our blood.”
March 27, 2019 – Fumes in the cabin of Las Vegas-bound Spirit Airlines Flight 245 sent 4 people to the hospital. One passenger lost consciousness and had a seizure, another lost consciousness, and 2 vomited, according to the FAA. The next week, the same plane had another fume event.
April 16, 2019 – JetBlue Flight 629 to Puerto Rico returned to Orlando, Florida, after a strong odor filled the plane and passengers complained of itchy eyes and nausea. The pilots “were forced to breath[e] pressurized emergency air in order to escape further exposure,” according to airport records. Two people were hospitalized following the incident.
June 13, 2019 – Noticing fumes shortly after takeoff, the pilots of American Airlines Flight 1380 donned their oxygen masks and returned to Newark, New Jersey. The pilots and flight attendants said they “had scratchy throats, confusion and felt as though they were drunk,” according to paramedics. The entire crew was taken to the hospital by ambulance. The same plane had at least 2 more fume events during the next 11 days.
July 2020 – A workers’ compensation judge in Oregon ruled that a JetBlue pilot had suffered brain damage from toxic chemical exposure in a fume event. In the ruling, the judge criticized “the airline industry’s ongoing pattern of obstruction” and efforts “to create plausible deniability.”
Will a COVID Mask Protect Me?
While a surgical mask or N95 respirator may protect you from contracting COVID-19 on a flight, these devices will not help you in the event of a fume event. Neither will HEPA filters, cleaning practices or other precautions touted by the airlines to convince passengers their airlines are safe.
Are Lawsuits Being Filed?
Yes. Flight attendants have filed at least 4 lawsuits against Boeing, alleging harm caused by cabin fumes, according to Politico. One of the complaints was brought by former flight attendant Cynthia Milton, who claims she suffered health effects caused by fume exposure on board a Boeing 767. Milton said she blacked out while working on board the flight, which had to be diverted to Canada so she could be taken to a hospital. Since the incident, Milton requires daily use of an oxygen therapy tank, according to the lawsuit.
“I’ve lost everything,” Milton said. “I no longer can work. I’ve lost my home. I was a perfectly healthy person but I’ve lost every bit of health I’ve had — and so my ultimate goal is that this never happens to anybody else.”
Another lawsuit was filed against Boeing by Alaska Airlines flight attendant Vashti Escobedo, who sued in 2016 following what she described as a “single bad fume event.” Escobedo claims that as a result of the incident, she has suffered from daily migraines, blurry vision and memory and concentration problems. That suit was recently settled.
British union Unite filed a suit in 2019 against U.K. airlines British Airways and easyJet for allegedly exposing their employees to toxic air; a ruling is expected in early 2021. British Airways claims there is nothing wrong with its cabin air quality.
What’s the Solution?
The ultimate solution many pilots want is to have pure, clean outside air compressed from electronic compressors instead of being shunted through hot engines that may contain chemicals.
“There is enough research” on the subject, said Brussels Airlines pilot Rudy Pont. “The time to act is now.”
Do I Have an Aerotoxic Syndrome Class Action Lawsuit?
The Class Action Litigation Group at our law firm is an experienced team of trial lawyers that focus on the representation of plaintiffs in Aerotoxic Syndrome Lawsuits. We are handling individual litigation nationwide and currently accepting new injury and death cases in all 50 states.
If you or another loved one was harmed by toxic airplane cabin fumes, you should contact our law firm immediately. You may be entitled to a settlement by filing a suit and we can help.