Is the air we breathe on planes toxic?

Is the air we breathe on planes toxic?

You’re used to flying, but have you ever wondered what you’re breathing in the cabin, especially on long-haul flights? Contacted by various airline staff unions concerned about the health of employees, the National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety released its conclusions on this point yesterday.

Is airplane air toxic? When you are locked in a confined space for several hours, above an engine, it is indeed possible to ask yourself the question. But if this fear does not always grip occasional travelers, it is nevertheless present and shared by the cabin crew.

An “aerotoxic” syndrome, denounced by the unions

Thus, according to the flight crew, the air breathed in planes would be harmful to their health and responsible for various symptoms around what the unions call an “aerotoxic syndrome”. The environment breathed during the flight would be a source of headaches, dizziness, digestive or even respiratory problems.

The Health Safety Agency was therefore contacted in 2019 by several unions representing pilots and cabin crew. The Association of Victims of Aerotoxic Syndrome (AVSA) also became a civil party to a judicial investigation opened in Paris after the filing of a complaint by an Easyjet pilot in 2016, and accuses a “acute or chronic contamination of pressurized aircraft air by toxic substances and additives.”

An additional threat for cabin crew already exposed to staggered schedules, which impact health, and to ionizing radiation from cosmic and solar rays, which would increase the risk of skin cancer.

Pollutants identified, but too little data to conclude

This October 25, ANSES therefore released its conclusions on the subject of the toxicity of the air breathed in the passenger compartment and cabins.

First of all, the agency reaffirms that “the symptoms described by the people are not in question.” But according to her, aerotoxic syndrome is not a “consensual nosological entity” and that it is therefore, for the moment, not recognized as a pathology in its own right.

With regard to the actual toxic danger to which passengers and cabin crew would be exposed, the agency notes that “multiple sources of pollutants are identified, which can be linked to the materials used, the operation of the aircraft and in particular the ventilation system, the operations carried out on the ground and in flight, etc. In the vast majority of aircraft, the air supplying the cabin is partly taken from the engines. indicates the press release.

Compounds from engine oil or its thermal degradation are commonly suspected of polluting cabin air, which is referred to in the literature as “fume event”.

New research launched

However, in its expert report, ANSES announces that it cannot conclude either on the origin of the pollutants detected in cabin air or on their concentration levels, due to insufficient quality data. “Additional research is therefore essential to clarify the effects on the health of flight personnel linked to their profession and to the quality of the air in the cabins, identify the circumstances that could lead to particular pollution of this air and objectify the symptoms reported by these personnel” concludes the ANSES announcement. Various studies are in fact underway.

Under these conditions, it is also too early to conclude that there is a toxic danger, as a simple passenger.