Aerotoxic Syndrome is an illness caused by the long-term effects of breathing contaminated cabin air in an aircraft. The term was introduced in 1999.
Why should I be aware of this?
The supply of warm compressed air that is required for a comfortable environment and sufficient air pressure in the cabin is supplied from the engines, and so is in contact with moving parts which have to be lubricated. There are various engine seals in place which are designed to keep the lubricating oil and air separate. However, these seals are often not 100% effective and let a certain amount of oil into the air. They may also wear out with time. If a large amount of oil mixes with the very hot compressed air, fumes or smoke enter the cabin. This is known as a “fume event”. There are no filters in the cabin air supply to stop this happening.
All about Aerotoxic Syndrome
The toxic fumes may be seen as a bluish haze or smoke in the cabin. It can also be detected by smell.
The fumes are toxic because the oil used is complex and designed to withstand the extreme environment of the engines. It contains many toxic ingredients, including Tricresyl Phosphate which is added as an anti-wear agent. It is an organophosphate, and is known for its neurotoxic properties. Indeed, organophosphates are used in the manufacture of nerve agents.
Symptoms may be acute and last for a brief period after the flight, or chronic and long-lasting. Any of the following symptoms are possible:
- Fatigue – feeling exhausted, even after sleep
- Blurred or tunnel vision
- Shaking and tremors
- Loss of balance and vertigo
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory impairment
- Light-headedness, dizziness
- Confusion / cognitive problems
- Feeling intoxicated
- Breathing difficulties
- Tightness in chest
- Respiratory failure requiring oxygen
- Increased heart rate and palpitations
- Irritation of eyes, nose and upper airways.
Aerotoxic Syndrome is still not officially recognized as an ailment and many medical practitioners are unaware of the condition, so may diagnose sufferers with illnesses such as psychological or psychosomatic disorders, Chronic fatigue syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, “mysterious” viral infections, sleep disorders, depression, stress or anxiety.
Although some of these disorders may be a symptom of Aerotoxic Syndrome, the diagnoses on their own may not be very helpful as the root cause of the problem needs to be addressed.
Research to get to the root of the problem has been undertaken by various governments and regulating authorities but so far no conclusively proof has been found to establish a link between contaminated cabin air and chronic health problems. Independent studies, however, have shown evidences of this link. Corporate profit, conflicts of interests and ineffective control by government and regulating authorities means that the industry as a whole remains in denial of this problem.