Pilots call for probe into ‘contaminated air’

Toxic fumes from aircraft engines pose a serious health risk to airline passengers and cabin crew, an international aviation workers group warned on Thursday.

The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive, a UK-based coalition of pilots and flight attendants unions, called for a public inquiry into “contaminated air’’ on British aircraft. Both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat transport spokesmen said they fully supported the GCAQE appeal.

The Lib Dems’ Norman Baker said: “The government cannot continue to hide behind commercial confidentiality in a matter of public safety. We cannot wait for a disaster before taking action.”

The GCAQE said its investigations showed that toxic chemicals from engine oils and lubricants “leak daily into cabin air supplies”, though most of these events were not officially reported.

Estimates by ministers that one in 2,000 flights was affected by so-called “fume events” were a serious underestimate, said Tristan Loraine, GCAQE co-chair.

Researchers suspect that the main cause of the problem is an oil additive called tricresylphosphate (TCP) which reduces engine wear but is toxic to humans. Passengers and crew may be exposed to TCP because commercial aircraft supply cabin air – known as “bleed air” – from their engines.

Mr Loraine, who worked as a pilot for 20 years until 2006, said that the problem could be solved – by installing air intake filters or removing TCP from engine oils – if governments and the aviation industry took it seriously.

But the first step was to introduce a blood test for TCP, which is being developed and should be available by next year. In response to the GCAQE, the Department for Transport said: “The UK government is leading the world in ground-breaking research to address concerns about cabin air and has participated in two open and transparent public hearings where all the results have been published.”

The independent UK Committee on Toxicity conducted a review of evidence in 2006-07 and concluded that it was not possible to establish or to rule out a link between pilot ill-health and cabin air.

The government accepted its recommendation for in-flight air sampling research, which is now under way, to find out what substances occur in cabin air during “fume events.”

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