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1 July 2009 : Column 108WH—continued

It is not the most complicated thing to investigate the air going into the cabins of airliners. I understand that a German device measures any toxins in the fumes in aeroplanes. I am not sure why this is taking so long. I have consistently found in correspondence a resistance even to acknowledging that there is a problem or the possibility of one. I could understand that view on
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the part of the airlines—it would be a huge issue for them to replace the air pressurisation systems on aircraft if that proves necessary. The problem seems to occur more often in one or two models of aircraft than in others. My hon. Friend’s point about the new Boeing not having this system makes one wonder if Boeing did not realise there was a problem and that it should perhaps deal with it, so that at least the planes produced in the next 30 years could not be accused of poisoning pilots and passengers.

I am interested in where the Cranfield and Mackenzie Ross studies are. I understand that they deal with the two aspects of the problem: the medical evidence, and the question of whether fumes are entering aircraft ventilation systems. “Obstructive” would be too strong a word, but I have found an unwillingness to engage constructively in argument on the part of the DFT, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Committee on Toxicity, the air accidents investigation branch of the CAA and even, surprisingly, the British Air Line Pilots Association. I do not know why BALPA has not taken a more aggressive interest in the matter. After all, it is the pilots’ union. One would have thought that this issue would be one of its prime responsibilities, but it seems reluctant not only to engage in correspondence but, as I said, even to admit that there may be a problem.

I hope that I am not right in thinking that there has been obstruction. There certainly has been an unwillingness to talk about the problem. My hon. Friend has picked an appropriate moment to have this debate. If the two studies are not in the Minister’s hands, they are about to be, and I have no doubt that he will bring us up to date on them.

We really need to know definitively whether there is a problem with aircraft ventilation systems, whether it is causing the medical conditions that pilots are reporting, and, if so, what needs to be done. Alternatively, if the conditions are being caused by something else, we need to get to the bottom of that. There seems to be a great deal of substantial evidence backed up by too many “coincidences” for this to be an accident and there to be nothing in it.

I look forward to the Minister’s bringing us up to date on the matter, and I hope we will get from the Government timely and constructive progress in dealing with the problem and bringing the studies to a conclusion.

2.55 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on introducing this debate on an important matter. I agree with virtually everything that he said. I apologise for being 55 seconds late and not arriving for the beginning of his remarks.

This is a serious issue. It is worth putting on the record that it has, in fact, been raised many times in this House with successive Ministers by Members of all parties. The problem with contaminated air in aircraft stays while Ministers move on—upwards, outwards and sideways—at a bewildering rate. Many of us who have campaigned on the issue for some time find ourselves trying to explain to new Ministers the same problem that we have explained to previous ones.

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Indeed, the issue predates my involvement. I note that my colleague Lord Tyler, who was then the Member for North Cornwall, raised the matter in a debate in the House on 28 June 2000. On that occasion, speaking about the use of organophosphates as a lubricant in aircraft engines, he referred specifically to the BAe 146, an aircraft that presents a particular problem and about which there have been many complaints. He stated that

That was in 2000, yet here we are in 2009 having not made much progress on solving a serious matter.

The issue has been raised by Members across the House. It was raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in written questions that he has tabled. I have tabled questions, as have Labour Members such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and others. An early-day motion on the issue was signed by 72 Members last year. The Government cannot be under any illusion that this is not regarded as a serious matter on both sides of the House. Therefore, it is particularly disappointing that we are still waiting for real progress to be made.

While we wait for progress to be made, we still have a prevalence of incidents. In 2007, 116 contaminated air events were reported to the Civil Aviation Authority. The number of cases reported annually is rising. In 2006, it was 109—there were 78 in 2005. There are more complaints about some aircraft than others, which supports the point made earlier. It seems that some aircraft are more disposed to the problem than others. The Boeing 757 was involved in 43 such cases, out of 109, in 2006; and the BAe 146, of which fewer exist, was involved in 17 incidents—the second highest number of any aircraft.

The Government, in a previous departmental incarnation as the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, stated on 21 January 2000 that

That was the Government’s official position in 2000, but the Minister’s predecessor—now the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick)—stated on 6 May 2009:

So we have gone from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. One wonders how much further that statistic will drop before there is action to deal with the points in question.

Research by the German or Swiss broadcaster that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned suggests that contaminated air was present in 28 out of 30 tested cabins. Furthermore, 106 Boeing 757 pilots surveyed reported more than 1,660 incidents during their careers, many of which were thought to be associated with contaminated air. A similar survey of 250 current and retired British BAe 146 pilots found that 85 per
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cent. believed that they were breathing contaminated air while flying. More than half of them—an enormous number of pilots—reported symptoms of ill health relating to air contamination, and nearly one in 10 had to be retired on health grounds. An enormous toll is being taken on professional people, with seemingly little being done about it.

There have been incidents elsewhere in the world. In May 2009, a former flight attendant won civil damages for respiratory damage, having been exposed to contaminated air, in the case of Turner v. Eastwest Airlines Ltd. In October 2007, staff at Flybe refused to board the company’s fleet of BAe 146 aircraft, saying that poor air quality was putting them and their passengers at risk. That came about after two stewardesses collapsed during a flight and all seven crew members had to be taken to hospital. Flybe subsequently announced that it would phase out BAe 146s for commercial reasons. That seems to be the nearest thing to what might be called an out-of-court settlement. I agree with hon. Members’ comments on how interesting it is that we are now adopting a new form of producing air for cabins or, perhaps, reverting to what was originally there before bleed air was introduced in the 1960s.

There is no question but that this is a serious matter. The Government have said that they recognise there is an issue, and I do not wish to suggest that they are being less helpful than they are, because they have been willing to engage and have answered parliamentary questions. I met the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town, along with Lord Tyler and the Countess of Mar. I believe that Ministers are genuinely concerned about this matter and are taking it forward, but I hope they get the message from today’s debate that they are not taking it forward far enough or fast enough. People are at risk as we speak, including pilots, passengers and crew. I am dismayed that it is taking such a long time to get the results of studies that the Government have instigated.

I asked the Minister’s predecessor on 6 May why the research project on cabin air quality had been allocated to Cranfield. I say “allocated” because no European Union public procurement procedures seem to have been invoked on that occasion. He replied:

Although that may be a realistic exercise, eyebrows would be raised if it were not tendered. An explanation has been given, but I hope that the Minister accepts that, because of the long delays—not necessarily since the project was allocated, although there have been delays since then—going back to 2000 and beyond, which I have mentioned, there appears to be an element of playing for time on somebody’s part until aircraft are phased out and the problem goes away. I do not necessarily wish to suggest that that is absolutely the case, because I cannot prove it. Nevertheless, putting the circumstances together, one gets circumstantial evidence that suggests there may be some element of truth in my assumption.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening with the Cranfield study, including when it will report.
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I hope he will tell us that there should be an open inquiry into this issue, because the public at large, and the pilots in particular, want to be confident that it is being seriously addressed. We need an open forum of some sort—I would hesitate to use a public inquiry as a forum—with opportunity for cross-examination, whereby people can test the theories, put forward their views and scrutinise those taking decisions and making assumptions on our behalf.

My colleague Lord Tyler asked a parliamentary question in the other place on 20 February 2007:

Lord Bassam, answering for the Government, indicated that the Department was

Can the Minister give any further information on the collaboration that clearly was under way, or at least under consideration, back in February 2007?

Let me raise two other matters relating to cabin air quality that are entirely different to the substantive matter we are discussing. First, under an international aviation agreement, insecticides are sprayed in the cabin on flights from particular countries, presumably to kill off insects that may be brought into this country or elsewhere. Having done quite a lot of work on pesticides, I do not regard that as a safe procedure. One of the first issues that I ever took up as a campaigner was pesticides, and that is one reason why I am in politics. It does not seem entirely safe for large amounts of insecticide to be sprayed in a plane before it lands, sometimes over food, irrespective of whether children are present, with no proper warning or safeguards in place and in a confined atmosphere. I should like the Minister to tell me now or in writing what assessment has been made of the potential health implications of that practice, not necessarily for a fully healthy person but for a vulnerable person with previous exposure to pesticides. The first time I went on a long-distance flight and experienced that, I had no pre-knowledge of it. Someone who is vulnerable to pesticides—insecticides—through exposure to them on farms, for example, and has lost resistance to them could be sprayed without their knowledge. That is worrying. I would grateful if the Minister took up that issue.

My second point concerns air quality on board for individuals who require extra oxygen for health reasons. The Minister may be aware that airlines have vastly differing practices regarding allowing oxygen on board. I have had representations on this matter from the British Lung Foundation and others, who are concerned at the wide variations in practice across the industry. There is even resistance from some airlines to anyone bringing on board extra oxygen at all, even if they pay for it themselves. A person’s requirement for extra oxygen is effectively a disability, and we should not be discriminating against people with such a health need. I should like the Minister to ensure that there is a process whereby airlines supply extra oxygen to those who identify themselves as needing it; or, at least, to ensure that no obstacle is put in their way if they wish to bring extra oxygen on board.

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3.8 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr. McCrea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on making a typically well-researched, thorough speech. In securing the debate, he has done us all a favour and has given us an opportunity to focus on something that a number of hon. Members have been concerned about for a long time. As a pilot, he has brought particular knowledge to the subject. We have had a good short debate, including a contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples). I also enjoyed listening to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I share the genuine concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East about the contamination of air supply to commercial aircraft cabins.

I pay tribute to the campaign by the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive for raising awareness of the issue, and in particular to Captain Tristan Loraine, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned, and to Captain Susan Michaelis, who have done so much to raise the profile of this issue in the public spectrum. The campaign is made up of professional pilots and is assisted by scientific experts who are well placed to research and comment on the matter, one of whom—Dr. Sarah Mackenzie Ross—figured in my hon. Friend’s speech.

The campaign argues that a number of pilots have been severely brain-damaged by cabin air pollution, and that the lives of passengers and crews are being put at risk, as my hon. Friend set out in some detail. Dr. Mackenzie Ross considered those issues in her studies and specifically looked at flight crews, not only because they are more frequently exposed and therefore principally at risk, so we are more likely to see effects among them, but because of the obvious point that the lives of everyone on board a modern aeroplane would be put at risk if the pilot was seriously affected or, worse still, if the pilot and the co-pilot were seriously affected at the same time.

When simulators are used to investigate the decisions taken by flight-deck crew, factors such as tiredness are sometimes assessed, but there are no tests to establish what happens when the quality of decision making is deliberately downgraded. If that is the case, and that is what I have heard from the industry, it suggests that different sectors have different approaches. Most people believe that being a pilot is more difficult than being a driver, but a number of organisations, including the Institute of Advanced Motorists, have done extensive tests on drivers, subjecting them to a variety of things that would impair their decision making, such as large quantities of alcohol or having to talk on a mobile phone while driving a difficult route.

Dr. Mackenzie Ross has found that cabin air is sometimes contaminated with hydraulic fluids and synthetic jet oils, which contain the chemicals described by my hon. Friend. Those chemicals are potentially highly neurotoxic and are, as he said, found in a variety of other sources, including agricultural chemicals. Most famously, they were also behind Gulf war syndrome. In 2007, about 350 UK aircrew advised their union that they may be suffering physical and psychological ill health following exposure to contaminated air.

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Dr. Mackenzie Ross has argued that the incidence of contaminated-air events on commercial and military aircraft is difficult to quantify because of the lack of monitoring systems. I do not want to repeat everything that my hon. Friend said, but the study that he quoted is significant. In 2003, the British Airline Pilots Association said that only 61 out of 1,667 contaminated-air events were recorded. In other words, only about 4 per cent. of incidents were making the records, for all the reasons that he gave.

The Minister should set up an awareness campaign among aircrew to look at the dangers of air contamination and at how to report contamination events. I will be making a number of other points, but that is one of the most basic. Aircrew—I hope that the union will show some leadership on this—should be actively encouraged to report problems. I would also like to know what steps the Minister will take to ensure that passengers are informed when they have been exposed to a contamination event.

Unlike in a building, passengers in the pressurised cabin of a plane are totally dependent on the air supplied by the plane once the doors have been closed—obviously, they cannot open a window. Today, that always means bleed air from the main engine. In most aircraft, air is bled off at a temperature of at least 400° C. It then goes through a heat exchanger and ductwork before being delivered to a manifold, where it is mixed with re-circulated air. I am told that the heat exchanger and ductwork in most aircraft are never cleaned and that no regime is in place to ensure that airlines do such work—indeed, there is no regime or regulation in place even to establish whether airlines do it. Even the air conditioning systems in a decent hotel room are subject to a regime of filter changes and duct cleaning, and people in a hotel room can open the window.

Everyone present will agree that air supply needs to be safe. It is widely recognised that all aircraft are subject, to some extent, to occasional engine oil leaks, but certain types are subject to many more, and my hon. Friend picked out the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757. The CAA database for 2004 recorded that 72 flights experienced contaminated air, although the low reporting rate, to which we have all alluded, suggests that up to 2,000 flights in the UK may have experienced contaminated-air events in that year. It is clear that the process by which air is delivered to the cabins of commercial airliners is potentially flawed. It does not guarantee the quality of air for breathing, and no mechanisms appear to be in place even to monitor air quality, let alone to ensure that air is safe.

Such issues are increasingly recognised. My hon. Friend referred to Boeing’s decision on the 787—the so-called Dreamliner—and it is interesting to look at what Boeing said about it. Boeing was invited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee to make a submission and it did so in writing. It said:

The fact that the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer takes that view provides compelling evidence that there is an issue to address. My hon. Friend also mentioned Rolls-Royce, which, as far back as 2003, said:

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