Toxic Air on Planes Can Make You Seriously Sick

Frequent flyers beware: the air you breathe on commercial flights might be posing a risk to your health. A new study conducted by the World Health Organization asserts that an alarming number of passengers are subjected to breathing in toxic cabin air on an annual basis, offering a bit of disconcerting news as summer discount deals flood the market.

The study, conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom and Australia, probed the effects of aerotoxic syndrome, which can occur when air from engine compressors seeps into a plane’s ventilation system. The practice of “bleed air” has been around since 1955, and it’s used to help pressurize airplane cabins. Health risks are possible when synthetic engine oil enters the cabin air supply during the air bleeding process, subjecting flight staff and passengers to a toxic fumes that can cause a variety of health complications, such as cancer, soft tissue damage, fatigue and neurological problems, the study found.

According to the report, authored by Susan Michaelis from the University of Stirling, 3.5 billion passengers and 500,000 crew members were subjected to low-levels of exposure in 2015 alone, sounding an alarm for the airline industry and anyone looking to board an airplane within their lifetime.

“Aircraft air supplies contaminated by pyrolysed engine oil and other aircraft fluids can reasonably be linked to acute and chronic symptoms, findings and diagnoses, thus establishing causation,” reads the study, which reviewed the symptoms of 200 different airline employees who had been exposed to toxic fumes in recent years. “... Both acute and chronic exposures to neurotoxic and a wide range of thermally degraded substances were confirmed."

Potential longterm concerns include damage to the “cardiovascular, neurobehavioural, neurological and respiratory symptoms," and also serious conditions like "chronic fatigue, multiple chemical sensitivity, aerotoxic syndrome, cancer, soft tissue damage and chemical exposure.” Smaller maladies were detected too, including respiratory infections, fatigue, nausea and cramps, among others.   

Michaelis, for her part, blames the airlines' negligence for letting such a severe issue snowball into an industry-wide dilemma, potentially affecting billions of people a year: “They won’t admit it because of money and liability ... they knew about this problem in the 1950s. It’s unconscionable that they haven’t dealt with it,” she told The Independent.

If Michaelis assertions are correct, plane ventilation systems aren’t the only health issue painting airlines as bastions of disease. In April, it was reported that 200 American Airlines employees had reported getting sick from their uniforms. And yesterday, after a dogged fight against the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing its employees, American Airlines cut ties with its uniform manufacturer, citing employee complaints.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Esquire. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster