Airline staff complain of toxic leaks onboard

Airline personnel have said that say engine lubricants containing organophosphates (OPs) sometimes leak into the cabin air supply, and have incapacitated staff in flight, and forced others to give up flying.

As a result of the claims, made on BBC Radio Four’s environment programme, Costing the Earth, on 28 September, the UK Government is to commission a comprehensive study of the evidence.

Technical secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, Bruce D’Ancey, said that he was concerned at the possible implications of lubricants using OPs, which have already been blamed for causing neurological damage in farmers and other people. “What we are in is a situation where we have OPs in engine oil, a known method by which they can enter the cabin through the compressor system, and we know they are hazardous to health. That should surely be enough to cause an investigation”, he said.

One British pilot told the programme that he began to develop short-term memory loss, and a stutter, and that every time he flew a plane he got influenza-like symptoms, felt very tired, and suffered from anxiety attacks. After being grounded for three months he returned to work, and his symptoms immediately returned. “The suggestion of long-term OP contamination was made to me then, and it certainly seems to be the case, because as I’ve been away from it I’ve gradually recovered, and I’m virtually back to normal now,” he said.

An Australian pilot told Costing the Earth that he frequently smelt an acrid oily odour on his BAe 146 aircraft, which frequently caused him to get headaches, fatigue, occasional nausea, loss of concentration and upper respiratory irritations. He pointed out that the labels on the cans containing the lubricants warn users that prolonged or repeated breathing of mists from the oil, or skin contact, can cause nervous system disorders, and also warn of possible irreversible health effects.

Although the UK House of Lords has launched an inquiry into the problem, the Environment Minister Michael Meacher has announced that a study of the evidence will begin before the inquiry has reported.

Senator John Woodley, who chairs the Australian inquiry into OPs in aircraft, said that it was also essential to investigate the cumulative effect of long-term exposure to very small amounts of the chemicals, and that frequent flying business people were also at risk from OP’s effects.

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