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.
“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.
“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.
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