Stuffy, yeah. But dangerous? How safe is the air in airplanes? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 18.02.2016
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Stuffy, yeah. But dangerous? How safe is the air in airplanes?

For years, toxic fumes in aircraft cabins have been suspected of posing health risks, although solid evidence was always lacking. Researchers in Göttingen have now taken a closer look.

For nearly three years, Astrid Heutelbeck and her team have been examining people who reported health symptoms after having recently been onboard a passenger aircraft. The scientists tested 140 patients who reported symptoms, mostly flight staff. The scientists examined blood and urine samples taken directly after a flight, in some cases using new testing methods.

Along with the organophosphates known to have a negative effect on enzymes in the human body, the team also found traces of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The health effects of VOCs can vary, ranging from respiratory tract irritation to deleterious effects on the nervous and cardiovascular system. The researchers believe these VOCs could have been released from kerosene, oils or antifreeze used in the aircraft’s engine, which then leaked into the cabin’s air supply.

Cabin air is typically drawn through the aircraft’s engines. These engines are regularly found to be contaminated with oil or antifreeze, resulting in “fume events” that have been recorded since the 1950s. Between 2006 and 2013, Germany’s Air Accident Investigation Authority (BFU) recorded 663 fume events. In 2010, the pilot and copilot of a Germanwings aircraft landing in Cologne were forced to put on their oxygen masks after detecting a burning smell. The crew were able to land the aircraft safely.

Despite the large number of recorded incidents, however, there was no scientific evidence that cabin air could cause illness. It’s likely that airline crews are more affected than ordinary airline passengers.

The Göttingen researchers believe their findings are significant. In coming weeks, they plan to present their results at scientific conferences and in scientific journals. They hope their findings will serve to better illuminate the controversial phenomenon known as aerotoxic syndrome.

mb/nm/glb (dpa)