Toxic travels

    CAPITALISM: How safe is the air we breathe on commercial airline flights?

    Tristan Loraine knows a lot about flying; the former British Airways captain fell in love with it when he was 17 and still describes his first-ever solo flight from a small airfield in Belfast, as his best-ever flying experience.

    But 18 years ago, after experiencing increasing symptoms of poor health that included frequent lung infections, numbness in the extremities, and what he calls «brain-fog», he was medically retired. Puzzled by the unexpected bouts of ill health, he talked with other pilots and aircrew he knew had experienced similar symptoms. Soon he had identified a key suspect: toxic fumes from synthetic oil drawn into the aircraft’s onboard air supply via an industry-standard system of air bleed sucked in through a passenger jet’s engines.


    As former colleagues and friends succumbed to neurological conditions, cancer, and other life-limiting conditions, Loraine began assembling the evidence that toxic organic compounds associated with tricresyl phosphate (TCP) – a key ingredient of synthetic aero-engine oils – were being pumped into airline passenger cabins along with warmed air streamed over jet engines.

    Usually unnoticeable, the toxic fumes would occasionally occur in such concentrations (for example, when oil leaks occurred) that passengers, crew and pilots could not escape the foul odor (often described as being like smelly unwashed socks) or, on occasion, foggy emissions.

    Emergency landings, paralysed pilots, vomiting passengers – all were happening with sufficient frequency to merit internal airline investigations, though rarely, if ever, public announcements or information for those affected.

    toxic organic compounds associated with tricresyl phosphate (TCP) – a key ingredient of synthetic aero-engine oils – were being pumped into airline passenger cabins along with warmed air streamed over jet engines.

    The birth of aviation

    Driven by growing concerns, Loraine discovered that the threat of toxic fumes had been known within the industry since the birth of commercial jet air travel in the 1950s. Reports by Boeing showed that earlier forms of cabin air supply, via mechanical condensers used in turboprop passenger aircraft, were re-introduced, rather than risk using the then-new technology of jet engine bleed systems.

    The key problem, Loraine learned, was that jet engine bleed systems only filter out bacteria and viruses using standard air filters similar to those that any modern car has. More advanced filters capable of removing tiny particles of TCP contaminated oil aerosols have never been used.

    While America ruled the airways, passengers were not at risk of toxic fumes, but in the 1970s British and French aircraft producers adopted the cheaper, simpler air bleed system and soon their American rivals also switched to the cost-cutting device.
    Loraine’s meticulously sourced argument, in a film that unfolds like a compelling detective mystery, comes down to an aviation industry cover-up that rivals that of the denials the tobacco industry and asbestos producers put out for decades about the so-called «safety» of their products: passengers and crew of commercial jet airliners risk breathing toxic fumes with potent neurological and carcinogenic effects every time they fly.

    As everyone has a different genetic makeup and the impacts of such organic compounds as TCP may affect some more severely than others – or not at all – there has long been enough wiggle room for the aviation industry and its powerful lobby to deny any wrongdoing. The genius of Everybody Flies is that it exposes the cynicism of senior figures – such as BA’s former chairman Willie Walsh denying that the company kept information on those employees who had reported ill effects, or the uncomfortable denials a former British Airlines senior medical advisor issued in an interview on Australian television.

    Everybody Flies, a film by Tristan Loraine, Beth Moran

    Thin ice

    Loraine goes as far as to persuade BA crew members to secretly swab cabin surfaces during flights to find evidence that TCP compounds are literally on every wall and floor of a passenger jet cabin, and to using a hyper-sensitive air particle detector to prove that within an airline cabin particular concentrations are 5x higher than a busy, polluted inner London street and up to 25x than his kitchen at home in a rural part of southern England.

    The degree to which the aviation industry understands that it is increasingly on thin ice with regard to toxic fumes is demonstrated by the fact that no airline, engine maker, aircraft manufacturer, or aviation industry regulator approached for interview agreed (or simply ignored) to participate in the documentary.

    Loraine’s conclusion – that toxic fumes could be eradicated by simply fitting (and retrofitting) superior air filters – is one that sounds like common sense. But at a heavy cost to airline bottom lines, already suffering after nearly a year of global Covid-19 lockdowns, don’t hold your breath that the aviation industry acts anytime soon.

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    Nick Holdsworth
    Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
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