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Cabin air quality and airlines

(Please note, this matter is not currently being litigated in Australia)

In recent days, the Australian media has presented allegations of a cover-up by airlines and aircraft manufacturers over the safety and quality of the air circulated on commercial airliners. Such allegations allege that people exposed to unsafe air can be harmed by a condition known as aerotoxic syndrome.

Research to date is vague. Most say that there is no such a thing as an aerotoxic syndrome however, in the academic and government research done to date, this conclusion is always couched in terms of a need for more research. Certainly, those most exposed to cabin air, being the professional pilots and cabin crew members who operate commercial aircraft, have repeatedly expressed concerns to governments that air “bled” from aircraft engines brings into the cabin various substances which result from heated engine oils and hydraulic fuels with attendant medical and safety risks to those inhaling the chemicals.

Professor Michael Bagshaw, who appeared on the 1 December 2013 edition of 60 Minutes (Australia) appears to be regularly updating his research on this topic. Version 2.6 of his document “Health Effects of Contaminants in Aircraft Cabin Air” was last updated in October 2013. This notes that a cabin crew member recovered compensation from the Dust Diseases Tribunal in Australia last year for lung damage related to a single fume event.

In Australia a Senate enquiry in 2001 looked at these issues, as did the United Kingdom House of Lords. The issues and concerns remain despite the findings from those inquiries. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) established a Cabin Air Quality Reference Group in 2002 in response to the Senate Inquiry. It then convened an Expert Panel on Aircraft Air Quality (EPAAQ) to look at this issue in 2007. The Expert Panel reported in 2009 and parallel reports from the United States and Europe were provided to CASA in 2011. The Expert Panel was unable to reach definitive conclusions saying that this was an area of research where “reasonable people’s views can differ”, and thus CASA considered that it would not propose any major policy or regulatory decisions on the basis of that evidence. It also noted that many of the Expert Panel’s recommendations fell outside the ambit of CASA’s functions as set out in the Civil Aviation Act 1988 (Cth).

Recommendations 27 and 28 in the report particularly asked the Government to implement certain ICAO resolutions which would serve to help prevent the spread of disease in passenger aircraft, and commission further needed research on the consequences of air transport on the health of passengers and crew. CASA said these matters were for the (then) Department of Infrastructure and Transport to look into.

In light of the present Federal Government Aviation Safety Regulation Review (as reported here on our website) Shine Lawyers Aviation Department is considering pursuing its own independent research into these matters, if there is sufficient interest from people in the community who feel they have been affected by “aerotoxic syndrome” or have had adverse health effects from aircraft cabin air in commercial flights.

The results of this will help inform our submission and the submission of the Australian Lawyers Alliance Aviation Special Interest Group (Qld) to the Review to, if necessary, demand prompt action by the Government to pursue changes to aviation laws to protect people on aircraft.

Members of the public who wish to share their experiences in relation to cabin air quality are welcome to contribute.


Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: December 5, 2013.

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