An autopsy may prove contaminated cabin air causes death


Most pilots have smelled the passing odor of engine fumes while flying, but industry can’t say much about what chemicals, exactly, air crew and passengers are breathing – and to what effect. Failure to require sensors to ensure that odorless and colorless carbon monoxide gas does not exceed FAA-approved levels in the cabin, and that air is free from toxic contaminants, is one strike against an industry that has barely been able to defend itself against claims that cabin air is causing serious illness: by claiming no one can yet prove anything.

The aviation industry has clung to the fact there is no evidence to show the causation of said illnesses is contaminants found in cabin air, and the FAA stated in its August 2013 letter to Congress on the subject that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 essentially prohibits the agency from obtaining corroborating data necessary to show any causation. But as the investigation around the death of one man, a British Airways pilot named Richard Westgate, intensifies, arguments about causation may be a thing of the past.

Westgate died in December 2012, setting off an investigation of a potential causal relationship between cabin fume events and serious illness by allowing medical testing and autopsies for research on his body. Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Professor Mohamed Abou-Donia conducted post-mortem testing on Westgate, and was able to demonstrate that exposure to toxins found in cabin air is cumulative over time, and that reactions are highly variable according to genes – points often ignored by industry, which has focused concern around single fume events traditionally large enough to warrant a report. Only recently did EASA add “abnormal smells” to its mandatory occurrence reporting scheme, and according to Abou-Donia, these low-level, passing events are showing to be much more harmful than any single dramatic fume event.

Margus Rahuoja, cabinet member of European Commission vice president Siim Kallas informed RGN of this recent revision to legislation on occurrence reporting, but the FAA has not made any such changes, and in its letter to Congress showed a misunderstanding of the health risks around contaminated cabin air by defining “fatal” as “any injury which results in death within 30 days of the accident”. This definition does not make much sense given Abou-Donia’s and others’ findings regarding cumulative, chronic exposure and symptoms as being far more dangerous than intense, one-time exposure. Just because someone doesn’t die within 30 days of exposure doesn’t mean the fumes aren’t fatal.

Both the FAA and EASA believe a study can clear the confusion around how harmful is contaminated cabin air, though PhD on the subject Susan Michaelis of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE) says there have been hundreds of studies performed before to little effect. Nonetheless, Rahuoja said EASA is at work defining a multi-phase research program which might involve a “measurement campaign”.

ADR-Facebook-Header 500 wide (1)This is particularly relevant now that the Bournemouth coroner is reportedly one month away from an inquest on the cause of death of Richard Westgate. The GCAQE, an organization representing air crew, offshore oil workers and consumers dealing with contaminated air issues, breathlessly awaits the results with the rest of the aviation industry, where co-chair and former BA pilot Captain Tristan Loraine is at work on a documentary. The UK public this month recognized Loraine with the British Citizen’s Award for work educating the public about contaminated air issues through his films and work with GCAQE director Michaelis. Ahead of the inquest, Loraine will debut his latest film, A Dark Reflection, a feature film based on events around contaminated air issues, which will screen in the UK as well as at the Vail Film Festival.

If not pleased with EASA and FAA efforts, GCAQE has seen recent success with the European Committee for Standardization, CEN, which is now establishing a committee to create standards for air cabin quality. Meanwhile, Michaelis tells RGN she is following the work of Liebherr Aerospace, which makes a new filter, testing aboard an Airbus plane, which should be capable of removing neurotoxins by filtering bleed air before it enters the aircraft. “Test of an all-electric bleed-free air conditioning pack are on-going at Liebherr Aerospace,” notes the firm.

Airbus did not have any comments for this story, but Boeing spokesperson Miles Kotay said, “Cabin air quality research conducted by independent researchers, universities, industry, and government agencies has consistently shown that cabin air meets health and safety standards. Contaminant levels are generally low.” But Kotay’s claim that contaminant levels are low and air is healthy contradicts the FAA’s note in its August 2013 letter to Congress that there is an at-large failure to detect many cabin air contaminants – it’s just not known how poisonous cabin air actually is. This is in part why the National Center of Excellence (COE) for Airliner Cabin Environment Research has promised to “identify air contaminants that could be considered hazardous to both passengers and flight crew members”.

While identification of all the complex chemical cocktails that can comprise contaminated cabin air and their effects by inhalation will be very difficult to define, the Bournemouth coroner has a situation that isn’t: whether Richard Westgate died because of contaminated cabin air. If the answer is yes, that’s one industry can’t easily sidestep.

See a British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) representative address the union’s deep concerns over contaminated air in the video below.

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