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Killed by the air they breathed

Tragic deaths spark safety inquiry call
Barrie Clement, Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has called for a full public inquiry into the safety of air breathed aboard airliners following the death of a cabin crew member and a pilot.


Unite member Mathew Bass, who died suddenly last January aged 35, was found to have died from ‘chronic exposure to organophosphates’, which is added to jet engine oil.


In a second case a senior coroner for Dorset has written to British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority calling for ‘urgent action’ about the existence of the contaminants in cabin air. Investigating the death of 43-year-old BA pilot Richard Westgate, the coroner Sheriff Stanhope Payne said ‘there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken’.


In most modern aircraft unfiltered ‘bleed air’ from jet engines is used to supply the cabin, but in the event of an oil leak, fumes can end up inside the aircraft. The only airliner not to use bleed air is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.



Unite’s cabin crew members have-long standing concerns about ‘aerotoxic syndrome’ – the effects of contaminated air. They say that each one of them will encounter a ‘fume event’ – a leakage of toxic fumes – at least once in their career. Cabin crew representatives are likening the issue to the impact of asbestos in the building industry.


Speaking to ITV News, Len McCluskey said that much more needed to be done to understand illnesses caused by exposure to contaminated cabin air and that airlines should be required to monitor air quality during all flights.


Calling for the public inquiry, Len said: “We want the manufacturers and airlines to treat this seriously and we are not going to allow a position where our members and indeed members of the public are exposed in a way that people simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘well there is nothing wrong’.


“We don’t want to constantly have fatalities of decent working people, who go to work and should be protected, to build up and up and up before somebody decides to finally say ‘well perhaps we should do something about this’.”


Oliver Richardson, Unite’s national officer for civil aviation, said that while up-to-date figures were unavailable, it is thought that the life expectancy of cabin crew was substantially below the rest of the population and that more research was urgently needed to assess whether bleed air might be implicated.


He said the impact of a fume event on individual cabin crew could vary. “Some crew members are affected very little, others experience short term effects but recover. Others have long term problems. It is the kind of detail we don’t know enough about. There isn’t enough research into the subject or monitoring of such leakages aboard aircraft. Some people are members of cabin crew for 20,30 even 40 years. We need to know the long term impact.”


Independent inquiry call

Unite is calling for the independent inquiry so that the dangers can be fully assessed and investigated in an open forum. The union has started a dedicated hotline so that members can log incidents and so that the union can build up a picture of the frequency of contamination.


In a letter to all the major airlines, Unite regional officer Simon McCartney, warned that flight safety is severely affected by leakages.


He said: “Exposure to contaminated bleed air … should not be regarded as a nuisance but as a serious risk to flight safety. Research shows the majority of flight crew are failing to use emergency oxygen during a contaminated air event, often resulting in pilot and cabin crew impairment and sometimes incapacitation.


“Commercial aircraft have no form of contaminated air detection system fitted and the bleed air is not filtered. Extensive research shows that the vast majority of contaminated air events go unreported leading to under-recognition of the scale of the problem, delayed maintenance action and unnecessary risk to health and flight safety.”


Simon points out that the short term effects of exposure to the fumes include blurred or tunnel vision, disorientation and even seizures and loss of consciousness. The long term impact ranges from memory impairment to respiratory failure.


Unite has assured cabin crew members of full legal representation to pursue civil claims and their families would receive the backing of the union at inquests. A letter has been sent to all cabin crew members highlighting the issue and offering support.


The cause of death of Matthew Bass, who worked as cabin crew for two airlines in a 15 year career, was discovered after the persistence of his father Charlie and with the backing of Unite.

Matthew Bass

Matthew Bass

He says his son kept himself fit and healthy, although in the last six months of his life he frequently complained of tiredness and occasionally suffered mild bouts of trembling. He also had digestive problems and doctors believed he was suffering from Crohn’s disease.


After his death, post mortem tests ruled out Crohn’s disease but failed to establish a cause.


The family paid for a second post mortem which was carried out by a pathologist in Holland and which found that Matthew had died from a “chronic exposure to organophosphates”.


In the other case British Airways pilot Richard Westgate was on medical leave when he died in 2012. The 43-year-old believed he had been poisoned by repeated exposure to contaminated cabin air.


Sheriff Stanhope Payne’s investigation isn’t complete – the inquest has yet to be heard – but he has written to British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority expressing concern that people in aircraft cabins are being exposed to organo-phosphate compounds with consequential damage to their health.


He warned that impairment to the health of those controlling the aircraft – i.e. the pilots – could lead to the death of the occupants.


The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is responsible for monitoring air quality on planes, told ITV News that the coroner’s report is ‘nothing that passengers or crew should be overly concerned about’. It acknowledges that aerotoxic syndrome is a condition that exists but insists occurrences are rare.


British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh said the airline did not monitor cabin air for the presence of contaminants on a regular basis because he believes the equipment to do it ‘sufficiently accurately’ doesn’t exist. Walsh said he was satisfied that BA aircraft were safe.


ITV News asked him how many pilots and crew had been signed off on medical leave due to exposure to organophosphate. He said that the airline group didn’t ‘have data to support that question’, but that the airline would respond in due course to the points made by the Dorset coroner.


The Department for Transport acknowledged cabin crew and pilots had complained of ill-health. It said a review by the independent Committee on Toxicity in 2007 ‘did not establish a link between cabin air and pilot ill health, but nor did it rule it out’.


Unite national Officer Oliver Richardson said: “Airlines don’t seem to be interested in engineering a way out of the problem, but in the long run people like Willie Walsh are going to have to deal with it.”


Oliver said the union was approaching the problem from three perspectives: first, by raising awareness among cabin crew of fume events and dealing with it industrially; second by backing members in legal cases and third by putting pressure on industry bodies to institute international standards to monitor air quality and set up a proper regulatory framework.


See the full report from ITV News, including an interview with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, here.

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