UK coroner warns of toxic cabin air; industry stagnant on issue


In an ongoing investigation into the death of former British Airways pilot Richard Westgate, a senior coroner for Dorset in the UK has warned that exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air poses a health risk, and that action must be taken to prevent future deaths.

The sobering report from Sheriff Stanhope Payne, issued under what’s called Regulation 28, calls on industry to address the fact that no real-time monitoring exists to detect these toxins in the air, and that pilot and crew impairment due to exposure may lead to the death of aircraft occupants.

It has been published for an industry that chronically asserts that contaminant levels are generally low and meet health and safety standards, as a Boeing spokesperson told RGN  for an article following the findings of post-mortem testing on Westgate conducted by Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Professor Mohamed Abou-Donia. 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.

Frank Cannon of Cannons Law Practice acting on behalf of the family of the deceased says, “The industry position has changed successively over the last 20 or so years, starting from a position of absolute denial that any toxic contamination was present.  When scientific tests established the presence of the contamination, the industry position changed to acceptance of its presence, ‘but don’t worry it won’t do you any harm’.

“When real cases of harm emerged time and again, the position evolved yet again to one of ‘We know it’s there, but it is well below minimum safety levels. So it cannot be the contamination that is causing the ill-health in aircrews.’ Minimum safety levels are a fallacy, with no known scientific basis. Real neurotoxic injury is caused by long-term low-level exposure. When a plane lands, the passengers get off, but the crew turn around and do the same thing all over again, day in day out.”

Airbus declined to comment for this story, explaining, “It is not for Airbus to comment regarding the proceedings in the UK. For your questions therefore please refer to the associated parties. Airbus aircraft (and its cabin air systems) are certified according to the highest EASA and FAA standards.”

The corresponding FAA standard, FAR 25.831, states that crew and passenger compartment air must be free from harmful or hazardous concentrations of gases or vapors and that aircraft must demonstrate this airworthiness — a condition that some experts say is unmet since aircraft do not have real-time air monitoring detection systems and do not cleanse cabin air from these gases.

As for EASA, the agency can only make an appropriate response “if solid information coupled with conclusive scientific evidence is made available”, Margus Rahuoja, cabinet member of European Commission vice president Siim Kallas wrote RGN.

But the coroner’s report is now available, alongside Abou-Donia’s initial results and ongoing research.

Susan Michaelis, head of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, notes that cabin breathing air on all aircraft apart from the Boeing 787 is taken directly from the engines and provided unfiltered to the aircraft.

She recommends industry adoption of all-electric bleed-free air conditioning filtration packs, and a new technology called Photocatalytic Regenerable Adsorption systems, which essentially remove particulate and gaseous contamination from the cabin air supply.

As yet, Michaelis says, “Industry won’t ask for and airlines won’t pay for it.”