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Air Quality

In-Flight Air Pollution Is A Thing, & Boeing Thinks It’s Risky To Install Air Sensors

I’ve only flown a handful of times, but every time, I’ve fallen sort of ill. Well, with the exception of my last flight to Atlanta, and I think that was because I was wearing an N95 mask each way. Having asthma and weak lungs makes one super sensitive to dirty air, and I’ve always thought that it was just the cabin air — being reused and all.

I’ve only flown a handful of times, but every time, I’ve fallen sort of ill. Well, with the exception of my last flight to Atlanta, and I think that was because I was wearing an N95 mask each way. Having asthma and weak lungs makes one super sensitive to dirty air, and I’ve always thought that it was just the cabin air — being reused and all. It’s worse than that, however. It seems that in-flight air pollution is a thing — and can be a devastatingly bad one, at that.

In an article published in the LA Times, the author shared her airline industry investigation that found out that toxic fumes from jet engine oil are seeping into the air supply and sicken the passengers as well as the crew. She started her article with a horrifying ordeal — the pilot had passed out and the copilot, Eric Tellman, was close to passing out but managed to strap on his oxygen mask in time. Then he gave the captain a mask.

An odd smell had mysteriously scented the air — one that had passengers and flight attendants coughing and crying. Although the captain and the co-pilot landed safely, they had no memory of the landing or even taxiing down the runway. Tellman told the author that he went to the hospital and spent the following week in bed very ill. He was vomiting, shaking, and felt as if  “a freight train had run over us.”

You do the math: a strange smell, odd symptoms, and a trip to the ER that landed him in bed for a week. Something was off with the air supply to the plane — way off. The author of the article pointed out that the air we breathe while we are in the air comes from the jet engines. There’s even a name for it — bleed air. Unless there’s a mechanical issue, it’s safe to breathe. One type of mechanical issue given as an example, though, is a faulty seal. When this happens, heated jet engine oil leaks into the air supply, releasing toxic fumes into the plane.

This is supposed to be a rare event, but the LA Times’ investigation found something very alarming: vapors from oil and other fluids seep into the planes “with alarming frequency across all airlines.” This can lead to chaos, confusion, ill flight crew, and passengers struggling to breathe.

Tellman was just one of hundreds who reported being sickened or impaired on flights in recent years. An LA Times analysis of NASA safety reports dating from January 2018 through December 2019 found a total of 362 fume events that were reported to the agency. Almost 400 pilots, flight attendants, and passengers received medical attention and during 73 of these flights, pilots used emergency oxygen.

“Passengers are often unaware that their air supply has been contaminated. Fume events can be odorless, and some of the most common symptoms of exposure — headaches and fatigue — are indistinguishable from jet lag, experts say. Airlines have no obligation to notify passengers of fume events and have sometimes provided misleading information.” — “We Are Slowly Being Poisoned,” LA Times.

The article noted that scientists have long been warning of potential hazards from breathing heated jet engine oil. It contains tricresyl phosphate, which is highly toxic and can damage the nervous system. It can also create carbon monoxide, which is an odorless killer. In 2002, a study that was mandated by Congress recommended that passenger airplanes have carbon monoxide sensors — but today, they still do not have them.

The article also noted that airlines have been begging Boeing to install air sensors for years, but it is averse to the idea of developing the technology. Senior Boeing engineers are afraid that data from sensors would get them sued by sick passengers and crew members — this tidbit of knowledge comes from internal emails and sworn depositions that were obtained by the LA Times. One such internal memo by Boeing said that it was a “risk” to give air sensors to even one airline. “Flight attendants, pilot unions, and congressional supporters could use this effort as evidence that sensors are needed and … to drive their agenda forward to have bleed air sensors required on all aircraft,” noted the 2015 memo that Boeing was forced to turn over in a court case.

Boeing gave a statement to the LA Times claiming that it didn’t equip its planes with air sensors because suppliers haven’t “demonstrated the existence” of devices that “reliably detected contaminated bleed air.” It also added that scientific studies haven’t proved a link between fume events and health problems. “The cabin air inside Boeing airplanes is safe,” Boeing said.

Lufthansa Asked Boeing For Air Sensors — Didn’t Get Them

In 2015, Lufthansa, a major German airline, asked Boeing for a new feature on the 777X jets: air sensors. Lufthansa thought that monitoring the air was necessary to detect fume events, an internal Boeing memo showed. The memo noted that Lufthansa had health concerns about contaminated air and worried about disruptions and extensive maintenance. Boeing refused to give Lufthansa those air sensors.

Although Boeing’s official statement was that there is “no reliable and accurate real-time sensor for detection of contaminated bleed air validated for use in commercial aircraft,” its own expert, Ruel Overfelt, said something else in a deposition just last year. Overfelt believed that sensor technology that could be adapted for planes “could probably be bought off the shelf” and had been available for “more than 10 years.”

Also, Boeing knew about air quality issues in its jets … since 1953! The company has even warned its own workers in a 2007 safety advisory sheet that engine oil fumes could damage the nervous system and cause “dizziness, headache, confusion and ‘intoxication.'”

The FAA Could Be Intentionally Looking The Other Way

The article also shared the story of US Airways Captain David Hill, whose 30-year career was ended by the FAA after being ill from the fume event on his final flight. The smell spread through the plane sickened several of the flight crew and left Hill and his copilot groggy.

Hill called for paramedics, and when he landed, he and the crew were taken to the hospital with all of those symptoms that Boeing warned its workers about in that safety report. It got worse for Hill — within a month, he was unable to read an analog clock. And within 6 months, he got fired. The FAA gave him this statement:

“A careful review of your reports … after your Jan 16, 2010 fume incident on Flight 1041, discloses that you do not meet the medical standards.”

The letter also listed those same symptoms as the reason for pulling his certificate. Hill became an advocate for mandating air filters and sensors. He wrote the FAA and noted that not just him, but his coworkers who were affected were also no longer able to work. This led to him questioning why the agency did not inform passengers that they had been exposed to these dangerous chemicals.

Dorenda Baker, the FAA’s director of aircraft certification, responded with this: “We have not been able to trace clear cause-and-effect relationships between contaminant exposure and short-term and long-term health effects.”

The article shared a few more horror stories that are similar to Hill’s own. For Hill, an Air Force veteran whose dream was to take to the skies, losing his FAA certification devastated him. Hill filed a lawsuit for workers’ compensation but lost it. The reason, the judge ruled, was that the chemical exposure levels on Hill’s plane were too low to cause serious harm.

Hill took his life in December of 2016. His suicide note had the subject line, “Cabin fumes.”

My Thoughts

Hill’s painful story moved me in a way — especially since I almost took my own life once. My situation was vastly different, but I know that painful headspace very well. The fact that the FAA took his certificate away while simultaneously ignoring the reason why and pretending that reason wasn’t even valid just goes to show that these agencies that are supposed to protect us really don’t care.

Instead of investigating, it seemed they tried to silence and break him. They succeeded. I can’t imagine the mental anguish he must have endured on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.

I also want to add my own thoughts about Boeing’s part in this. Thinking that it is too risky to install life-saving devices because they are scared of being sued shows that they only care about the dollar — not our lives.

How many scientific studies on air pollution and the fact that carbon monoxide is a killer does one need as proof? They said that there is no link between fume events and health problems — do not the trips to the ER count as health issues? Does vomiting and being sick for a week due to breathing toxic air not count as a health problem? What is Boeing’s definition of a health problem if not being able to breathe doesn’t count as a health problem????

How many deaths will it take for Boeing to realize that toxic air kills? 

As someone with asthma, this really pisses me off. I really think that Boeing’s concern is that detection devices are now so good that they could detect contaminated bleed air that could lead to them getting sued and losing in court for harming people — although, that is just my opinion. The fact that there are legal documents showing that Boeing executives were worrying over being sued if they installed air sensors should disturb you.

Photo by Zach Shahan, CleanTechnica


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Written By

Johnna Crider is a Louisiana native who likes crawfish, gems, minerals, EVs, and advocates for sustainability. Johnna is also the host of GettingStoned.online, a jewelry artisan and a $TSLA shareholder.

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