Sometimes all I need is the air that I breathe – The Hollies
A poignant line, especially when reading this news article in the Telegraph – and doubly so when previously the subject had been raised by Christopher Booker in 2007 and latterly in 2012. Yet we learn from Wikipedia the aerotoxic syndrome was raised before Booker, way back in 2000 by Chris Winder and Jean-Christophe Balouet. Even before that, in 1986 to be precise, a US inquiry into cabin air quality recommended a ban on smoking as a means to improve cabin air quality.
The first well-documented case was of a C-130 Hercules navigator becoming incapacitated after breathing contaminated cabin air in 1977. The neurotoxic properties of organophosphates have been known about since before the Second World War. The toxicity of heated jet oil was known from 1954. All jet aircraft including turboprops are susceptible to fume events. Some aircraft have a worse history with the worst offenders being the BAe 146, Boeing 757. In today’s existing modern bleed air aircraft, the quality of cabin air could be improved, and the risk of contamination by engine oil reduced, with these known solutions:
- The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the obvious answer as it eliminates the possibility of cabin air contamination. Instead of bleed air, cabin air is supplied by electrically-driven compressors taking their air directly from the atmosphere.
- As bleed air is not presently filtered, installation of bleed air filtration systems would eliminate the problem, although a technically efficient system does not yet seem to have been developed.
- A less toxic oil formulation could lead to significant improvement. The French oil company NYCO is continuously developing such oils.
- Chemical sensors to detect contaminated air in the bleed air supplies – instead of human noses – would alert pilots to problems, allowing prompt preventive action.
Numerous independent scientific studies have produced clear evidence of contaminated cabin air being the cause of chronic health problems. On the other hand, various governments and regulatory authorities have commissioned research, which, while admitting an association between contaminated cabin air and chronic health problems, have stopped short of admitting causation. The aviation industry has tended to use the latter set of research (despite its often dubious scientific quality) to deny the existence of the problem, while ignoring the evidence of the independent studies or victims testimonies. One feature of the complex international situation of aviation is that the regulating authorities, while nominally government agencies, are actually financed and controlled by the aviation industry and therefore follow the industry’s desires. Doubtless mindful of the expense of addressing the issue, industry maintain there is ‘no evidence’ whilst tacitly acknowledging there is a problem; as shown by the introduction of the new Boeing 787.
Is it cynical to think that where business and legislators are concerned it is a case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ – or as David Cameron so eloquently put it: ‘We’re all in it together’?