Around 400 passengers, pilots, and flight crew needed medical attention after breathing toxic cabin air on airplanes from January 2018 to December 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Those victims include around 48 pilots who were so impaired by breathing toxic air that they were unable to perform their duties — including situations where they couldn’t fly the plane or land safely.
Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Spirit Airlines by a woman who was hospitalized with health problems after a flight in July 2018 was forced to make an emergency landing due to a “fetid, noxious, burning odor.” Several passengers suffered headaches, nausea, and difficulty breathing.
Her case could be the start of a new wave of lawsuits against airlines, which have long downplayed the risks of breathing toxic cabin air.
However, not even airlines disagree that cabin air sometimes contains toxic fumes. The problem is that on most aircraft built since the 1960s, cabin air passes through the jet engines. This air is called “bleed air.”
Jet engines get extremely hot, so they need a special lubricating oil that commonly contains Tricresyl Phosphate (TCP), a neurotoxic chemical in the same family as sarin nerve gas.
The seals on the jet engine are supposed to prevent TCP and other fumes from mixing with the cabin air, but sometimes they leak. There are no sensors to warn the flight crew when this is happening, nor are there filters to scrub the air before it is breathed by all aboard.
Passengers and crew-members might smell the fumes or see a smoky haze — but in many cases, the toxic gases are odorless and invisible.
Another problem is that the most common symptoms are easily mistaken for jet lag. The reality is that many people with fatigue, headaches, nausea, coughing, blurry vision, achy muscles, or cognitive impairment after a long flight may have been breathing hazardous fumes.