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1 July 2009 : Column 102WH—continued

1 July 2009 : Column 103WH

Air Quality (Aircraft)

2.30 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, which is well overdue. I must declare an interest as I am a pilot; I therefore understand some of the issues perhaps better than others. In the interests of brevity, I hope to explain the reasons why I asked for the debate without losing hon. Members in too much technical detail.

I begin by posing the key question: is there a fundamental design fault in passenger aircraft that exposes passengers and crew to dangerous and potentially lethal toxic fumes? To place that question in context, one must first appreciate how modern aircraft pressurise the air so that passengers and crew can breathe normally at high altitudes. Up to about the late 1950s, pressurised air was taken from outside and depressurised using cylinders and so forth, but a cheaper way was found that involves taking pressurised air from the compressor stages of an aircraft’s jet engines. The air is cooled and flows into a chamber where it is mixed with highly filtered air from the passenger cabin. The air then flows through the cabin and exits through valves in the fuselage. It is called the bleed air system and has worked efficiently for many years. However, while micro-organisms may be trapped by those filters, it is clear that other toxins may not, which is the whole reason for this debate.

The use of air that has passed through the engine means there is a probability that toxins and organophosphates, particularly tricresyl phosphate, or TCP, which is used as an anti-wear additive, can enter the cabin. Those toxins are not removed by the filters. The consequences of TCP entering the cabin can be headaches and drowsiness, as well as respiratory and neurological problems. That is certainly unpleasant for passengers, but is potentially lethal for pilots. Captain Tim Lindsey, a British airline pilot who supplied evidence to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment died in January 2009 of brain cancer—a long-term effect of toxicity exposure.

The condition caused by TCP has now been called aerotoxic syndrome, and the airline industry is familiar with it. Unfortunately, however, pressures within the industry mean that reporting of the syndrome is not as fair as it should be. Symptoms include eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, skin problems, nausea, vertigo, loss of balance, dizziness, fatigue and cognitive impairment—all things that one does not want the person in charge of the plane to suffer from.

It is interesting to consider which planes are the most vulnerable. All aircraft may be affected, as the bleed air system is similar throughout all aircraft, which means that whenever any of us flies we could be exposed to those toxins from the air that is taken via the engine. However, one is more likely to be exposed to toxins through certain aircraft designs than others. The main aircraft are the Boeing 757, the Airbuses 319 and 320, the Boeing 737 and the BAe 146. Interestingly, a different design has been chosen for the cabin air system in the new Boeing 787, which is about to be rolled off the factory floor. In that new system, the air does not go anywhere near the engines. I do not attribute any fault to the old systems, but simply note that the new aircraft is already moving away from that old design. The industry
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is well aware of the issue, as are the airlines. After a disastrous flight on a BAe 146, on which two stewards collapsed and after which the crew went to hospital, Flybe decided not to use those aircraft again.

According to the clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Mackenzie Ross up to 200,000 passengers are affected by aerotoxic syndrome every year, but when one thinks about any of one’s experiences on an aircraft, one realises that one feels pretty lousy when one gets off anyway. We may attribute that feeling to the time change, jet lag or even the food on the aircraft. It is difficult to put one’s finger on, or understand, the scale of the problem, because not enough research has been conducted on the issue.

In the studies that have taken place, however, there have been some interesting results. The German television network ARD and Schweizer Fernsehen—Swiss Television—secretly took 31 swab samples from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, of which 28 were found to contain high levels of TCP. Other scientific research, which was not necessarily linked to airlines, has proved that there is a direct link between TCP toxins and the human condition that I have discussed. That demonstrates the long-term link between low-level exposure to organophosphates and the development of neuro-behavioural problems. That position has been advanced by the US Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. Some 25 per cent. of Gulf war veterans suffered from the effects of organophosphate poisoning, and the organisation was able to establish that link, but unfortunately we have not been able to confirm the same link in relation to the airline industry. I hope that the Minister is willing to address that issue.

Airline pilots report symptoms similar to signs of aerotoxic syndrome.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, but will he clarify one point? He said that, unfortunately we have not been able to make a connection, but I think he meant to say that unfortunately, no such study has been conducted over here to establish whether that connection exists. Is that right?

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly what I am calling for, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point. Until we have the information that my hon. Friend mentioned, we will be in a very difficult place for making a judgment about what steps should be taken, rather than simply turning our backs on the issue.

The British Air Line Pilots Association has found that only 61 of 1,667 contaminated air events were recorded on the UK Civil Aviation Authority database. That equates to just under 4 per cent., which may be a small number from that perspective, but I return to my original point about how many incidents have been reported correctly. How many pilots simply said, “I don’t really want to rock the boat, or be seen to cause problems; I’ve got my future to look after, so I’m not going to bother filling out that incident report”? The real figure could be a lot higher.

However, passengers want to make sure that the figure is down to 0 per cent. They want to be sure that all pilots and co-pilots are fit and healthy when they get on a plane and when they get off it after a flight.

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There have been other voices of concern from outside the UK. Of course, this is a global issue. More than 10 years ago, the Australian Senate concluded that there was a risk to health and flight safety from exposure to contaminated air. If the Minister would like to look into that, he should look at the investigation the Senate carried out in 2000. The German Parliament took only weeks to conclude that inhaling heated engine oil products was not safe.

Clear evidence demonstrates that there is a design fault in passenger aircraft that puts passengers and crew at risk from fumes, yet the CAA and the Government continue to allow that situation to go unchecked. It is worth recognising who pays for the CAA; it does a wonderful job in some respects, but let us not forget that it receives its financial support from the airlines, so the CAA is not necessarily the best organisation to make a judgment on whether there is a problem with TCP.

Let us take a look at other parts of the industry that have commented on the matter. BAE Systems has said:

That is from the people who make the aircraft.

The CAA commissioned the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to examine contaminated cabin air supply ducts removed from two BAe 146 aircraft. It concluded that the chemicals that enter the aircraft were unlikely to be of sufficient concentration to cause ill health. It just plucked two cylinders off two aircraft and decided there was nothing to find. We must understand that these incidents occur when a sudden push of toxins comes from the engine. It is not simply a matter of taking two cylinders at random and saying, “Well, that’s the judgment we are making for the entire aircraft industry.”

The report accepted that there were more than 40 different chemicals contained in oil breakdown products, for which there are no published toxicology data. That means the CAA is making a judgment and an assessment about something when it cannot even put a yardstick next to it. If it does not know about the 40 different chemicals and what they might do, surely it should ask whether it is possible to do some more research and find out a bit more about what happens to those toxins. The CAA should not simply say, “Well, the things we do know about don’t affect humans, but we are just going to push the things we don’t know about to one side.”

Of course, air crews argue that the data are meaningless because they were not collected during a contaminated air event, which, as I said, is when a sudden surge of toxins comes into the aircraft and levels of chemicals may be higher. Obviously, there is also a question about the validity of exposure standards currently used to determine what constitutes safe concentrations. Again, the CAA, rather than an independent body, is examining the matter.

It would be fair to say that no proper studies have been conducted to date and that those that have been done typically involved questionnaire surveys conducted by air crew, or clinical examinations of small self-selected samples of air crew. I urge the Minister to read some of the papers by Michaelis, Winder, Coxon, Harper, Burdon,
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Somers and Heuser, and Mackenzie Ross, whom I have mentioned already. That is the sort of evidence that should raise the Minister’s eyebrows and make him wake up to the problems that we are facing and the fact that Governments have successively turned their back on the issues. The air crew reports show that they suffer from a range of different symptoms, including respiratory, gastro-intestinal and neuro-behavioural problems. However, little can be concluded from work on small, self-selected samples, other than that further research is warranted.

If the Minister has not already seen it, I urge him to watch the video documentary called “Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines,” which was put together by Captain Tristan Loraine, who is chairman of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive. He has been a pilot for 19 years and he has spent seven years researching the subject. If the Minister does not know Captain Loraine, I shall be happy to introduce him. I am sure that a copy of the video can be supplied. The documentary prompted a BBC “Panorama” follow-up and I understand that another film is on the way. The issue is not disappearing and I hope the Minister will recognise that.

The risks in planes are being ignored. We need honest research and a serious recognition that aerotoxic syndrome can affect pilots. Incidents of contaminated air events on commercial aircraft are difficult to quantify because they do not have air quality monitoring systems on board. That means there is no way to judge the problem because the filter measuring systems are not in place. There is an irony in relation to that because Federal Aviation Administration regulation 2002 states:

In effect, the FAA is saying that all aircraft should have some form of measuring facility on board. I am not aware of any aircraft that have that, so the Government are already in violation of their own rules. The Minister also needs to address that matter.

An organisation in another part of the industry that has commented on the problem is Rolls-Royce, which has acknowledged:

That is a comment from the engine maker itself. One small movement in the right direction has, in fact, come from one of the main companies that produces the oils for the aircraft company. A French oil company has conceded that oils are dangerous if they are inhaled, and that they can cause respiratory problems and affect the growth of small babies and so on. That is a minor step in the right direction, but there is an awfully long way to go.

I ask the Minister to recognise the scale of the problem and not to look at it as a case of liability. Those who have suffered from illnesses are not looking for some form of compensation. Yes, of course, they are angry at the system and they are angry at the Government for not doing anything about it. However, they just want planes that are safe and for people not to have to go through the same pain that they have gone through. It would not require an awful lot of money to include filters or air monitoring systems on aircraft. Those are the positive steps that many people—pilots, passengers and so on—are calling for from the Government. They want the Government to confirm that that is the direction
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they want to take. They do not want the Government to say, “Right, let’s get the industry to admit liability” and then go through the whole legal rigmarole of compensation. I wish to make it clear that those affected by TCP do not want that; they just want the Government to wake up and recognise the changes that are required.

There have been some investigations by the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Department of Health. In 2000, the Department for Transport asked the Committee on Toxicity to look at these issues. I am sure that the Minister will probably lean heavily on its report in his rebuff. In the last couple of years, the committee has come back with a follow-up report. The committee’s final assessment was that more research was needed. The Minister may well pluck another quote from the report that says this, that or the other, but the bottom line is that a couple of years ago, the COT said that more research was needed. I am pleased to see that the Minister is nodding because that means he recognises that. I hope we will perhaps hear today what research will be done, because obviously there are questions to be asked.

The COT also recommended that two types of study be commissioned: the exposure monitoring study, which is the on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft, and the further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure, such as type of aircraft flown. That is a very complicated way of saying that we need to understand the health and welfare of pilots a little better when they are flying aircraft.

The Department for Transport commissioned Cranfield university to undertake the exposure monitoring study. That was not done through a process of competitive tender; the contract was simply awarded to Cranfield. Will the Minister explain why the study was not put out to tender and why it was given to an organisation that might be considered sympathetic to the industry? To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission a cross-sectional neuropsychological study. That was the second aspect of the COT’s request, but it has not happened. I hope that the Government will wake up to that.

What can the Government do? They need to stop burying their head in the sand and wake up to the responsibility of office. That is exactly what Governments should do. They should also be able to make tough decisions that might have major consequences for powerful sectors of industry—in this case, the airline industry. First, the Government should recognise that the problem exists and that the Department for Transport has taken no steps to ensure that passengers and crew are informed about the possibilities of being exposed to contaminated air.

Secondly, the Government should conduct a proper inquiry, and collate proper evidence and data via air-monitoring systems on board passenger aircraft so that we know exactly which chemicals are entering the aircraft during a contaminated air event, and in what quantity. At present, the incidence of contaminated air events is hard to determine, as I said. Air crew state that under-reporting is common due to fears about job security and so on.

Thirdly, very much based on the outcome of those reports, the Government should make some firm decisions
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on the direction that the airline industry should take. They should decide whether a redesign of the aircraft is required, or whether filtering systems need to be put in to make engines safer.

I have spoken for a good 20 minutes on this subject, and I apologise to hon. Members who wish to speak. However, the debate is overdue and serious, and the Minister has some questions to answer. I have raised various issues. If he is unable to provide answers today, I should be grateful if he could write to me, because I intend to pursue the matter most vigorously. I do not believe that we can end a debate in Westminster Hall, pat ourselves on the back and say, “Yes, we have dealt with the issue. We can now move on to something else.” We need change in the industry, and we need to understand exactly what is going wrong. We need to ensure that when people get on an aircraft, they feel safe.

2.51 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has laid out most of the case that, had I been in his position, I would have laid out. I am grateful to him for instituting this debate.

I wish to add a couple of points. I got involved with this subject two or three years ago because a constituent of mine, John Hoyte, one of the founders of the Aerotoxic Association, came to see me about it. Since then, I have had a great deal of correspondence with various parts of the Government and various parts of the industry. My constituent lost his licence on medical grounds while working for Flybe but is now in the process of trying to get it back. He is convinced that, in essence, oil fumes poisoned him. Organophosphates were found in his blood, as they have been in the blood of many other pilots who are convinced that they have been affected by the same problem.

I do not remember how long ago it was—perhaps some of my colleagues do—but there was a terrible problem with sheep dip affecting people. The problem was caused by organophosphates, which we know are a terrible poison. Organophosphates are awful neurotoxins which cause serious neurological problems if they get into one’s blood. I have seen some medical evidence, and Dr. Mackenzie Ross’s study, which is due to be completed soon—if it is not by now complete—is looking at cases. I would be interested if the Minister brought us up to date on that.

Since becoming involved with this issue, I have had correspondence, mainly with the Department for Transport and the Committee on Toxicity, about the Cranfield study. What disturbs me about it is how long it has taken; no doubt the Minister will update us on that. If it has reported in the past few days—it is due to report—and I missed it, I apologise, but I do not think it has. In January, I was told that it was about half complete but that the other half had to be commissioned from someone else. I hope that that has been done.

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