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The Toxic Air Up There: Airplane Air Quality

Are noxious fluids and poor ventilation affecting the air we breathe while flying? Air travelers often wonder about the cabin air on commercial airline flights; flight attendants contend that it's toxic. Because of the growing number of complaints among the flight attendant workforce, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) is pushing for tighter federal regulations governing air quality aboard commercial aircraft.

Toxic Fluids Into the Air: Hazardous Duty

The AFA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 27 airlines, maintains that currently-allowed levels of carbon monoxide, ozone, and other contaminants put airline cabin crews' health at risk. Union members at one carrier have submitted, over a nine-year period, some 760 reports of symptoms—including headache, nausea, and memory loss—that arose from exposure to contaminants on planes.

"The significant number of complaints we get from flight attendants indicates that there is a problem," says Christopher Witkowski, AFA's Director of Air Safety and Health. He goes on to say, "The [airline] industry has been very quiet about this problem until the last three to four years when AFA research discovered a correlation between these complaints and the leaks of hydraulic fluid."

In one of the most widely-reported incidents, Alaska Airlines flight attendants reported hundreds of instances of people getting ill aboard the airline's MD-80 planes, which the attendants believed to be leaking toxic fluids, such as oil. Twenty-six flight attendants sued the airline in 1998 and were recently awarded a $725,000 settlement. However, the AFA contends that Alaska Airlines still has not fixed the problem of hydraulic oil leaking into the air supply aboard some Alaska Airlines flights. "We are still getting complaints," says Witkowski.

Airlines Not Cooperating With Feds

Due to the growing number of complaints and concerns, Congress last year ordered the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study the issue under the Aviation Investment and Reform Act (AIR-21). The NAS study would be used to come up with scientifically-based recommendations that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could use to write new air-quality regulations. This information would allow the NAS to correlate reported illnesses with these records and to determine the origin of persistent air-quality problems that have plagued the industry for years—particularly the hydraulic fluids and engine oils believed to be responsible for causing air quality problems aboard aircraft.

Unfortunately, the NAS has had difficulty getting the airlines to cooperate; airlines have refused to provide flight incident reports and vital information on maintenance. However, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) have expressed anger towards the lack of airline cooperation in the matter. They co-authored a letter to FAA Administrator, Jane Garvey, urging her to ensure that the airlines turn over the necessary information by April 17.

The Stuffy Skies

Another area of concern is onboard aircraft ventilation, and currently, there are no set standards for it. Despite flight attendant and passenger outcry for more breathable skies, the airline industry is considering a proposal to reduce the ventilation rates on planes by half, to a minimum of five cubic feet of fresh air per minute per passenger, instead of the commonly accepted guideline of 10 cubic feet. The standard on trains and buses is 15 cubic feet per minute.

Last June, The Wall Street Journal investigated air quality aboard 11 different flights on 11 different airlines. The study measured airflow, bacteria count, mold count, and respirable particulates/contaminants. The expert findings concluded that airflow, for virtually every flight measured, was too low for an enclosed space. Findings also determined that the airflow on the Northwest, TWA, and US Airways flights was deemed) "too low to measure." On the Southwest and United flights, the airflow was deemed acceptable; however, the bacteria count was high. The US Airways flight had a mold count that was so high that experts said it could cause problems for passengers with allergies.

"The airlines are looking at ways to save money," says Witkowski. By reducing outside air into cabins, airplanes become more fuel efficient and cheaper to run—the savings can run into millions of dollars per airline.

Airlines, Manufacturers, and Governments Contend Air is Safe

In 1994, the Air Transport Association (ATA) commissioned a study on air in cabins and found that cabin air systems "exceed the requirements for maintaining a healthy air quality environment." Furthermore, the two largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, have exhaustedly studied air quality and deemed it very safe. However, because the airlines and manufacturers did the studies, many have been skeptical of the findings.

Nonetheless, across the pond, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology released a significant study in November called Air Travel and Health, which backs the findings of the ATA study. The UK study states, "Air travel, like all other activities, is not risk free. For the very great majority, any risks to health from the aircraft cabin environment seem very small." However, the study also criticizes the airlines because they have "woefully neglected" health issues and because they haven't done enough research into the problems.

More Needs To Be Done

While the UK study is suggesting a more proactive approach to health concerns, some feel that the current U.S. study, NAS's AIR-21, does not go far enough to ensure the public's health. "AIR-21 is a big disappointment," says Diana Fairechild, former flight attendant, author of Jet Smarter, and founder of The Fair Air Coalition (an airline advocacy group). Ms. Fairechild speaks from the heart. After logging millions of miles in the air as an international flight attendant, she became seriously ill. Doctors diagnosed her illness as "chemical poisoning" triggered by the hazardous environment in airplanes.

Fairechild says, "AIR-21 contains no requirement that airlines make any corrections or even follow the new study's findings a year from now. But the worst part is that on every flight today, passengers continue to be deprived of fresh oxygen because AIR-21 delays any protection for them—protection from contagious diseases such as TB, which can spread in the recycled cabin air, and from exposure to onboard toxic chemicals."

Nevertheless, AFA's Witkowski remains positive and says, "We are pleased that the study is going forward. AFA hopes that the NAS will be able to obtain all the information it needs to do a complete analysis of the problem with appropriate recommendations to improve aircraft air quality."


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