‘Toxic’ airlines face legal action

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In the UK, airlines are facing legal action over the reported exposure of pilots to toxic air.

Aerotoxic syndrome is nicknamed the ‘asbestos of the skies’, which says it all really. The phrase was coined in 2000, and despite being little known, has made the headlines on a number of occasions in recent years. ‘International investigation into effects of toxic air on planes demanded’, reported The Independent last summer, while in 2017 The Guardian asked, 'There are hundreds of sick crew': is toxic air on planes making frequent flyers ill?’.

So, what exactly is aerotoxic syndrome and why is it in the headlines again? Passengers, pilots and cabin crew have reported experiencing short- and long-term ill health effects due to breathing airliner cabin air contaminated by engine oils and other chemicals. This can culminate in aerotoxic syndrome, which occurs when the toxic chemicals attack the central nervous system, causing neurological injury.

Aerotoxic syndrome is nicknamed the ‘asbestos of the skies

Unpleasant, right? It’s no surprise, then, that Unite, a union that represents cabin crew, has concerns over the welfare of those exposed to potentially toxic cabin air; concerns that are backed by science. Unite's Assistant General Secretary for legal services, Howard Beckett, explains more: “Independent expert evidence concludes that air on board jet planes can contain a toxic mix of chemicals and compounds that potentially damage the nervous system and may lead to chronic irreversible health problems in susceptible individuals.”

According to Unite, legal notice has been served against airlines in 51 cases; 41 of these are against British Airways, with the remaining 10 relating to EasyJet, Thomas Cook, Jet2 and Virgin Atlantic. British Airways said that ‘none of the substantial research conducted over many years’ had proven a link between cabin air quality and ill-health. “We would never operate an aircraft if we believed it posed a health or safety risk to our customers or crew,” the airline said.

Legal notice has been served against airlines in 51 cases; 41 of which are against British Airways

EasyJet stated similarly: “EasyJet takes any health concerns raised by its crew seriously. However, aviation regulators and manufacturers around the world have looked at this issue and found no proof that long-term health issues arise from cabin air quality.”

However, Unite stated that it will produce independent expert evidence in court to support its claims that ‘[the air] in most commercial airline cabins can cause irreversible neurological damage and chronic illness among susceptible individuals’. It is backing the legal action and calling for an inquiry into the safety of cabin air: “Unite will use every avenue, including calling for a public inquiry and pursuing legal action, to get the airline industry to take responsibility and clean up the cabin air on jet planes.”