A coroner inquiring into the death of a former British Airways pilot has said that toxic fumes in cabin air pose a health risk to aircrew and frequent fliers. People regularly exposed to fumes circulating in planes faced “consequential damage to their health,” according to Stanhope Payne, the senior coroner for Dorset.
The coroner, who is inquiring into the death of Richard Westgate, called on BA and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to take “urgent action to prevent future deaths.”
Dr. Payne’s landmark report is the first official recognition in the United Kingdom of “aerotoxic syndrome,” a phenomenon long denied by airlines but which is blamed by some for the deaths of at least two pilots and numerous other incidents where pilots have passed out in flight.
While co-pilots can normally take over, campaigners who have raised concerns over the issue for a number of years claim the syndrome is a suspected cause of some mid-air disasters.
In commercial passenger planes, a system that compresses air from the engines uses it to pressurize the cabin. It can nevertheless malfunction, with excess oil particles entering the air supply.
With the air re-circulated in a confined space, the cumulative effect on frequent fliers, especially aircrew, can be harmful, according to the coroner.
In his “prevention of future deaths report” produced last week, the coroner says that examinations of Westgate’s body “disclosed symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air.”
Westgate, a senior first officer, died in 2012 after claiming he had been poisoned by toxic cabin fumes.
In his report, sent to the chief executive of BA and the chief operating officer of the CAA, Payne raised five “matters of concern” including: “organophosphate compounds are present in aircraft cabin air”; “the occupants of aircraft cabins are exposed to organophosphate compounds with consequential damage to their health”; and “impairment to the health of those controlling aircraft may lead to the death of occupants.”
He also said that there was no real-time monitoring to detect failures in cabin air quality and that no account is taken by airlines of “genetic variation in the human species that would render individuals … intolerant of the exposure.”
The coroner went on to demand that BA and the CAA respond to the report within eight weeks, setting out the action they propose to take.
The report, made under regulation 28 of the Coroners’ Investigation Regulations 2013, is not a full verdict from an inquest, which has yet to be held in this case.
Frank Cannon, the lawyer for Westgate’s case, said he was acting for approximately 50 other aircrew allegedly affected by the syndrome, working for airlines including Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Thomas Cook and EasyJet. He is also representing two passengers.
“This report is dynamite. It is the first time a British coroner has come to the conclusion that damage is being done by cabin air, something the industry has been denying for years,” he said.
“There are major crashes where we suspect the only plausible explanation is that the crew were suffering from cognitive dysfunction. More commonly, it causes incredible misery — very fit, intelligent and motivated people fall over sick. The first thing BA and other airlines have to do is recognise and take care of their injured aircrew,” he added.
Former BA captain Tristan Loraine, who claims toxic air poisoning forced him to leave his job, took ill-health retirement only a year after successfully completing the grueling Iron Man triathlon.
“I had about 10 medical experts give their view to the CAA that I was suffering from ill-health effects of contaminated air,” he said.
Loraine, who is making a documentary about the issue, said he had been left with numbness in his fingers and feet and that he sometimes found it difficult to recall information.