After 8 years, finally a breakthrough?
The National Cabin Air Advisory Group (NAC) was established in 2015 by then-State Secretary Mansveld (Infrastructure and Environment).
The NAC was tasked with advising the minister on:
- Developments (including new research) that could be relevant to the chosen strategy;
- The desirability of additional (international) research;
- The Dutch contribution to European research projects.
Representatives from employers (including KLM), employees (VNV, VNC, NVLT), and research institutes (RIVM, TNO, NLR) were appointed as members of the NAC, while the involved departments (IenM, SZW) participated as observers. An “independent chairman” was appointed, and the Second Chamber of Parliament was to be “informed at least annually and more often as necessary” about the work of the NAC. It seemed like a promising initiative to create a healthier working environment for airline personnel, with clean air for crews and passengers. At the time, we also had high hopes that this would finally address the issue of contaminated cabin air, which dated back to the early 1960s.
However, in practice, things didn’t go as well as hoped. The NAC turned out to be less focused on results and more like a “political talk club.” The goal of holding 3 to 4 meetings per year was not achieved, and the accompanying (minimum annual) reporting to the Minister was disappointingly sparse. While a (vague, uninformative) annual report was produced for 2016 and 2017, it was completely absent for 2018 and 2019 (see list of published annual reports)! In response to our inquiries, Chairman Biesheuvel even stated at the end of 2018 (after repeated insistence) that we “had, like many, too high expectations of the NAC.” According to the chairman, the NAC’s mandate was simply “to monitor international developments in the field of Cabin Air”…. An extremely disappointing turn of events and a waste of time and public funds.
Since 2020, the NAC has been under the purview of the RIVM, and a new chairwoman, Ms. Meiltje de Groot, has been appointed. Since then, there seems to be a fresh approach within the NAC: meetings are held multiple times a year, annual reports have been produced again from 2020 onwards, and, most importantly, to our surprise, the NAC recently (end of August 2023) presented an “Advisory Note on Increasing Knowledge and Awareness of Cabin Air Quality among Aviation Personnel” to the minister. This memorandum provides concrete advice on training cabin-, cockpit-, and technical personnel, as well as on reporting “incidents related to cabin air.” The document references the recommendations of the recently published CEN Technical Report NPR-CEN/TR 17904 and emphasizes the need for annual training for cockpit and cabin personnel, as well as technical staff and employees of Health & Safety departments and medical services. It covers areas such as recognizing and distinguishing odors, raising awareness of possible symptoms resulting from odor exposure, identifying the hazards of exposure, and the importance of proper (standardized) reporting of fume events.
This Advisory Memorandum marks an important step toward a healthy and safe working environment, but there is still work to be done. In conjunction with the implementation of training and the promotion of thorough reporting of all odor incidents (essentially fume events), it is crucial that:
- The recently published Medical Protocol for treating complaints after a fume event is implemented by occupational health physicians, hospitals near airports (where they might encounter these patients), etc. This Medical Protocol is an important tool for medical professionals to accurately diagnose victims of harmful substance exposure, preventing incorrect diagnosis and potential follow-up damage from incorrect medication.
- Only when the treating (occupational) physician has a separate “category for Aerotoxic Syndrome” can it be ensured that the patient receives the best possible treatment, and a realistic understanding of the actual number of patients with these symptoms can be obtained.
Additionally, Stichting Fly Aware will continue to raise awareness for the following important topics:
- Further development and installation of reliable filtering for all bleed air (not just recirculated air!) before it enters the cabin.
- Installation of effective sensors/warning systems for the presence of harmful substances in cabin air.
- Introduction of newly developed (and yet to be developed) less toxic types of oils.
- And ultimately, a complete ban on the use of bleed air systems for cabin air supply in newly designed aircraft. After all, bleed air is inherently contaminated with engine oil and hydraulic fluid, making it unsuitable for this application.