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Study Says Jetliner Air Quality Poses Health Risks: CUPE Takes On Airline Industry With Findings Of Survey

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), March 11-17, 1993

Canada’s troubled airline industry is about to face some more turbulence, as the union representing more than 6,000 flight attendents presses its concern that many of its members’ health problems are related to poor air quality in jets.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) says its locals have compiled data that paints a fairly stale profile of in-flight air quality and its relationship to altitude, passenger load and length of flight. As part of the survey, the union recorded flight crews’ complaints of chest pains and lack of oxygen, as well as other work-related problems like back injuries, hearing loss and high incidence of colds and flu.

Of more interest to frequent fliers might be the opinion of some experts that even the more common jet lag may be caused by excess carbon dioxide, ozone and radiation. More than half the air in many aircraft is recirculated, “stale” air that is high in carbon dioxide and may be carrying bacteria and viruses, according to some experts.

CUPE health and safety chair Tracy Angles says the union now has enough evidence to at least pressure the carriers to undertake more comprehensive air quality studies. CUPE represents workers at Air Canada, Canadian, Nationair, Air Transat and some smaller feeder carriers.

While the union’s study is the first of its kind in Canada, a survey by the US department of industrial relations found, among other things, that flight attendents had 20 times the expected frequency of respiratory illness.

Flying mines

“Flight attendants have been equated with coal miners in terms of the bad air they have to breathe,” says Angles. “But this is not something the companies want to study.”

However, spokespeople for Air Canada and Canadian Airlines say they have not heard of such health problems. Jerry Goodrich of Canadian simply says, “It’s not an issue.”

However, while earlier-model jets supplied the cabin with 100 per cent fresh air, increasing fuel costs led to some modification. Modern jets mix fresh air – expensive to produce – with stale air from inside the cabin, which is passed through filters. The percentage of recirculated air in some aircraft, such as the popular Boeing 747-400, could be as high as 52 per cent, Boeing’s figures show.

Boeing’s Tom Cole says air circulation in Boeing’s jets is better than in an average office building, and that the passengers are “washed” with air to eliminate carbon dioxide and other hazards.

Critics like Georgia doctor William Campbell Douglass, publisher of the health newsletter Second Opinion, charge that the high rates of recirculated air, and the reliance on passengers’ own breath and perspiration to humidify the dry air, provide a perfect environment for bacteria and viruses. Douglass even speculates that planes could transmit serious diseases like tuberculosis. He suggests jet leg could be “nothing more than CO2 intoxification and oxygen starvation.”

“There is no doubt if you are in a confined space, you are at greater risk,” says University of Toronto microbiologist Eleanor Fish. “Aircraft filter systems aren’t sophisticated enough to filter out all the bacteria and viruses. But I’d be hard pressed to believe that you are at greater risk traveling on airplanes than on elevators.”

It is difficult for public health authorities to pin down the health risks of airplane travel because passengers disperse immediately after a flight. However, medical journals have documented two cases where virus transmission could be established because the passengers were easily traceable.

In 1977, 38 of the 54 passengers on a plane grounded in Alaska for a four and a half hours came down with the same strain of flu.

“We consistently hear complaints about certain aircraft,” says Angles. “The Airbus 320 is one of the worst.”

Angles says many airlines exacerbate the problem by over-crowding planes and flying them longer and farther than they were designed for.

Cut corners

“With deregulation, they have more people in there than was ever planned on. Nationair is a good example. A normal class Air Canada 747 carries about 420 people. In the all-economy configuration the load is upwards of 496.”

Angles also says airlines have been known to cut corners by turning down air flow to save money. In their 1990 book The Aircraft Cabin: Managing the Human Factors, Mary and Elwin Edwards cite a study indicating a 1 per cent saving on a fuel bill can be achieved by reducing the ventilation rate in a McDonnel-Douglas DC-10.

More resources: 

April 2021

Airqualitynews.com Terror at 20,000 feet

A new global campaign and film asks whether the air we breathe on commercial flights is as safe as we think it is.

Another issue, which frequently gets overlooked, is the quality of the air passengers breathe onboard

In February, a global campaign was launched by the Global Cabin Air QualityExecutive (GCAQE), which called for the mandatory introduction of effective filtration and warning systems, to be installed on all commercial passenger jet aircraft.

According to the GCAQE, there have been 50 recommendations and findings made by 12 air accident departments globally over the last 20 years, directly related to contaminated air exposures on passenger jet aircraft.

However, commercial aircraft continue to fly, with no contaminated air warning systems to inform passengers and crews when the air they are breathing is contaminated.”

Jetliner Cabins Are Quickly Cleared of Virus, Pentagon Says

“Particles the size of the new coronavirus are quickly purged from a commercial aircraft cabin, according to a U.S. Defense Department study touted by United Airlines Holdings Inc. in its effort to reassure wary travelers.

Filtration systems and rapid air-exchange rates mean that only about 0.003% of infected particles entered a masked passenger’s breathing zone, said the report, released Thursday.”

Aircraft Air Quality – Protecting Against Contaminants, Association of Flight Attendants

“On October 5, 2018, a 5-year FAA bill became law. Included in the bill is a study on technologies to combat contaminated bleed air. This is significant progress!”

‘Contaminated air’ on planes linked to health problems, 21 June 2017

AEROTOXIC SYNDROME: A NEW OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE?, Public Health Panorama, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2017

Influenza Air Transmission, Influenza A (H1N1) Blog, September 28, 2009

“What does this tell us? Aerosols, very small particles of saliva containing the virus we exhale when we sneeze or even when we breathe if we have the flu, probably have an important role in the transmission of influenza. In addition to that we have public transportation, with a great number of people circulating in a place that may be closed and badly ventilated at times and we may have a notion of the importance of public campaigns that promote education and awareness of contaminated people to avoid leaving their homes when they have the flu and that they cover their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they sneeze and discard it right after that.”

2006

Tuberculosis and Air Travel: Guidelines for Prevention and Control

“The revised International Health Regulations, adopted in 2005, provide a legal framework for a more effective coordinated international response to emergencies caused by outbreaks of infectious diseases. A number of provisions are relevant to the detection and control of TB during air travel, strengthening the authority of WHO and of national public health authorities in this domain. Because of these important developments since the original guidelines were issued in 1998, WHO has prepared this revised version to take account of current public health risks that may arise during air travel and new approaches to international collaboration in dealing with them. The guidelines were developed with the collaboration of international experts in air travel medicine and other authorities. Implementing the recommendations will help to reduce the spread of dangerous pathogens across the globe and decrease the risk of infection among individual travellers.

An outbreak of influenza aboard a commercial airliner, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 110, Issue 1, July 1979

“A Jet airliner with 54 persons aboard was delayed on the ground for three hours because of engine failure during a takeoff attempt. Most passengers stayed on the airplane during the delay. Within 72 hours, 72 per cent of the passengers became III with symptoms of cough, fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat and myalgia. One passenger, the apparent Index case, was III on the airplane, and the clinical attack rate among the others varied with the amount of time spent aboard. Virus antigenlcally similar to A/Texas/1/ (H3N2) was Isolated from 8 of 31 passengers cultured, and 20 of 22 ill persons tested had serologic evidence of infection with this virus. The airplane ventilation system was inoperative during the delay and this may account for the high attack rate.”

The Airliner Cabin Environment and the Health of Passengers and Crew.

“At the end of its review of health data in the 1986 report The Airliner Cabin Environment: Air Quality and Safety, the National Research Council (NRC) committee concluded that “available information on the health of crews and passengers stems largely from ad hoc epidemiologic studies or case reports of specific health outcomes [and] conclusions that can be drawn from the available data are limited to a great extent by self-selection…and lack of exposure information” (NRC 1986). This chapter reviews data on possible health effects of exposure to aircraft cabin air that have emerged since the 1986 report and the emergence of data resources (e.g., surveillance systems) and studies that have particular relevance for the evaluation of potential health effects related to aircraft cabin air quality. Selected earlier sources are also reviewed. The decision to ban tobacco-smoking on domestic airline flights in 1987 and on flights into and out of the United States in 1999 reduces the relevance of some studies of exposures and reported signs and symptoms that clearly could have been related to the products of tobacco smoke.” 

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

Website: www.davidsouthconsulting.com

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