Are Those Onboard Aircraft Breathing in Toxic Fumes? Study Raises Fear about In-flight Toxicity

The next time you travel by air, be warned about the possibility that you’re inhaling toxic fumes. Scientists from Germany have found in a study that faulty air conditioning systems in aircraft could be causing toxic fumes to be present in the air. The scientists found that organophosphates, a class of harmful chemicals, and volatile compounds produced from the combustion of aircraft fuel were present in blood samples collected from aircrew. Organophosphates are widely used in herbicides, insecticides, and nerve agents.

The reason for this, according to the scientists that conducted the study, is that nearly half of all air present inside the cabin is recycled. The remainder is typically drawn in via the engines, and this air is often not filtered as it comes in through the engines.

Aerotoxic syndrome, a severe condition caused due to exposure to contaminated air inside a jet plane, was believed to be the reason behind the death of Richard Westgate, a British Airways co-pilot, in 2012. The symptoms associated with Westgate’s condition were persistent headaches, chronic fatigue, and nausea. The 43-year-old had blamed toxic fumes in the cockpit for his condition. Following his death, a study commissioned to ascertain the cause found that contaminated air was present in the cockpit with toxic fumes and organophosphates.

Scientists at the University of Göttingen have now found in a new study that this problem may be more common than previously believed. As part of the study, 140 patients who were showing symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome were put through a test. The researchers found that the patients’ blood consisted of volatile organic compounds and organophosphates.

Leading the team was Dr Astrid Heutelbeck, who told German media that many of the substances found inside the aircraft were banned from being used in consumer products. Organophosphates are widely found in the environment because of their use in pesticides – the reason doctors advise washing fruit and vegetables before eating them.

However, the airline industry seems to already be taking measures to mitigate this problem. A case in point would be the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is now designed bypass using 'bleed air' from the aircraft’s engines.

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