In-Flight Air Quality Is Making Crew Members Sick


Compared to driving, flying is safer, but it still comes with its own risks. Exposure to air contaminated by engine oil and other fluids was directly linked to health problems for aircraft workers in a new study.

The researchers said the lack of an accepted international protocol for medical investigations of crew and passengers after air quality incidents affected their ability to obtain consistent information. Susan Michaelis with the University of Stirling’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research group said the study is transparent in providing an association for health issues and in-flight air quality.

Credit: George Parrilla/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“This research provides very significant findings relevant to all aircraft workers and passengers globally,” Michaelis said in a press release. “There is a clear cause-and-effect relationship linking health effects to a design feature that allows the aircraft air supply to become contaminated by engine oils and other fluids in normal flight. This is a clear occupational and public health issue with direct flight-safety consequences.”

Researchers conducted two independent studies of aircrews involved in suspected aircraft contaminated air events in order to determine whether reported symptoms and diagnoses were consistent with aircraft fluid exposure. Participants in the first study answered phone interview questions or filled out questionnaires about their contaminated air exposure history, health effects and medical diagnoses.

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More than 270 pilots responded, with 142 of them reporting specific symptoms and diagnoses. 30 pilots reported adverse health effects but didn’t give any details, while 77 reported no health effects and 25 pilots failed to respond.

The second study focused on 15 potential cabin air quality incidents that were selected based on reports consistent with acute hyperventilation and hypoxia, or a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the body’s tissues.

The researchers said that of the 274 pilots who responded in the first study, 88 percent were aware of exposure to aircraft contaminated air. 63 percent reported immediate or long-term health effects, 44 percent reported acute or short-term effects and 13 percent died or experienced chronic ill health.

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In the second study, 80 percent of the events analyzed involved only fumes. 53 percent of the air quality incidents took place in the flight deck and 27 percent happened in both the flight deck and the cabin.

The researchers said that more than 3.5 billion passengers and half a million aircrew members were exposed to low levels of engine oils in 2015 alone. Vyvyan Howard, a professor of pathology and toxicology at the University of Ulster in Ireland, said the frequent exposure could explain why aircrew members and even frequent fliers get sick more easily.

“We know from a large body of toxicological scientific evidence that such an exposure pattern can cause harm and, in my opinion, explains why aircrew are more susceptible than average to associated illness,” Howard said. “However, exposure to this complex mixture should be avoided also for passengers, susceptible individuals and the unborn.”