THE HAGUE – Possible recognition of aerotoxic syndrome (ATS) as an occupational disease is drawing closer. This recognition would apply to an as-yet-unknown portion of pilots, cabin crew, and frequent flyers who are believed to be genetically susceptible to prolonged exposure to nerve agents from oil leaks in the sucked-in air from aircraft engines (‘bleedair’). Many claim to become (chronically) ill from it. The issue is on the agenda of the Dutch House of Representatives. This was revealed yesterday during a debate on aviation safety by the House Committee on Infrastructure and Water Management. Demissionary Minister of Transport Mark Harbers emphasized that scientific proof of a causal relationship must first be established. He stated that the results of international research, in which the Dutch RIVM and the European watchdog EASA are also participating, will be available by the end of next year. The committee called on Harbers to expedite the process.
The National Cabin Air Advisory Group (NAC) recommends increasing the knowledge of flying personnel regarding oil leaks through (awareness) training and the identification of strange smells and vapors during flights. Symptoms of ATS-related health complaints should also be more widely known, and cockpit, cabin, and technicians should be familiar with reporting and documenting deviations. Later this year, the NAC is expected to provide advice on sensors or other onboard equipment to detect these issues.
The minister fully supports such measures. “But we must proceed with care. It is not just a Dutch issue but naturally applies to the entire aviation industry.” According to him, within the NAC, which includes airlines, unions, and research institutions, they are also exploring a medical protocol so that (company) doctors can make consistent judgments about the alleged ATS. “Incorrect diagnoses are made too often,” was raised during the parliamentary debate with Harbers.
The NAC aims to achieve a ‘comprehensive package’ that can help manage the risks associated with contaminated cabin and cockpit air. Research into the effects of bleedair filters is also desired, as indicated in a letter to the parliament by the minister. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have resisted these measures, not so much because of the cost but mainly because it could entail confirmation and liability for endangering the health of crew and passengers over decades. Multi-billion-dollar chain claims are looming.
Nearly all jet aircraft
Bleedair has been commonplace in virtually all types of aircraft since the 1960s jet era. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is an exception, with a different air intake system, eliminating the ATS issue.
Annie de Vries of the Fly Aware Foundation, which has been advocating for ATS recognition and stringent measures for years, welcomes the latest NAC recommendations as a good first step. “Finally, something sensible. The awareness training for the crew and technicians is excellent too. So many have no idea what we’re talking about here. We do urge the swift implementation of the recently presented international medical protocol. Otherwise, doctors and health services may still be at a loss when dealing with victims,” she believes. According to her, the NAC should ideally provide that follow-up advice this year.