Why Aeroplanes Can Make You Sick

June 21, 2010


No, I am not talking about turbulence – but that indeed can do the trick – I wonder if you’ve noticed that after any flight, particularly long haul, you get a headache, or have trouble breathing or would just feel mentally dull and confused? You may put it down to fatigue, but it now seems that it could be something as simple as you breathing in the toxic fumes that regularly circulate throughout many commercial airline cabins.

Guess what, you are not alone and it has now become a recognised condition with a new name of Aerotoxic Syndrome. It’s called a syndrome because there are a whole host of both acute and chronic symptoms that it is now believed are caused by breathing contaminated jet cabin air such as chronic fatigue, respiratory difficulties, vision problems and cognitive disorder.

That’s all very well, but what causes it? The basic reason is that airplanes fly thousands of feet above sea level where the air is cold and thin and in order to make it suitable for passengers to breathe it must be pressurized, heated, and then circulated to the cabin. On most commercial planes this is done by drawing in a compressed supply of air from plane engines and typically, this “bleed air” is mixed with existing cabin air and recirculated throughout the flight.

As you might imagine, this air is drawn is often contaminated with toxic fumes from the friction that occurs between various moving parts in the plane’s engine and the oil that lubricates them. Of course these compartments are designed with seals that block fumes from getting into the cabin, but like anything else they are not 100 percent effective and can and will break down over time, letting more and more oil mix with hot compressed air.

So what is actually in the air that you are breathing while sitting in your aeroplane seat?

The type of oil used to lubricate plane engines is a complex, synthetic variety that has been specially formulated to endure extreme conditions and has a number of toxic components, including Tricresyl phosphate (TCP), a known neurotoxin that is used in pesticides and nerve agents. Heavy metal particles such as nickel, cadmium and beryllium also make their way into the mix as the “bleed air” is drawn through engine channels.

The Aerotoxic Association claim that these toxins cause damage to the central nervous system though this will vary from person to person. Some people may experience immediate symptoms while others may notice a pattern of illness that becomes progressively worse over time. This is not something that is acknowledged or recognised by government and regulatory authorities as they feel there is not enough evidence that the toxic fumes circulating in airplane cabins are responsible for any sort of illness.

The evidence to date may be anecdotal but that doesn’t make it less real. There have been testimonies from pilots, air filtration experts, flight attendants and passengers that have been harmed by toxic cabin air. One such is Tony Watson, a former commercial airline pilot. Whose blood tests revealed that his body was filled with petroleum-related chemicals that led to severe neurological damage, leaving him unable to fly planes.

In the UK, the House of Lords made a request back in 2007 that the substances contained in cabin air fumes be analyzed to determine safety and a group from Cranfield University agreed to conduct the study and release the results by March 15, 2010, but it has yet to do so. The Aerotoxic Association fears that the report may never be released as the university has “close commercial partnerships with Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce, to name just a few”.

So if you want to avoid breathing in toxic recycled air which airline should you choose? Sadly, virtually all jet aircraft and turboprops use an air circulating system that is susceptible to toxic fumes and the only type of plane that uses non-bleed technology is the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This commercial jet is the first one in over 40 years to be created using safe technology, despite evidence since at least the early 1990s that bleed technology creates toxic cabin air.

My advice? During the flight, other than carrying your own personal oxygen mask, drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids and take 500 mg of vitamin C when you board the plane and every two hours thereafter. Vitamins C is instrumental in helping expel toxins from the body, as is plenty of water. Check your body tolerance for vitamins C, signs you are at your limit include tingling on the tongue and/or mild diarrhoea. Some people can take up to 3 to 5 grams a day, but for most people starting at 500 and working up is much the best plan. Once arrived at your destination I would keep up the water and vitamins C routine for at least another 24 hours.

If you want to find out more you will find lots of fascinating information at www.aerotoxic.org


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