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Another independent expert on the subject, who comes from the opposite side of the world, is the Royal Australian air force’s head of aviation medicine research, Dr. Singh Bhupinder. He has spoken out at international conferences, making it clear that he, too, believes there is a real issue to address.

Will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking in conjunction with the CAA to ensure that the passenger air supply on aeroplanes operates at a safe level of toxicity? Everybody in the Chamber recognises that the airline industry is struggling, and it is worrying to see the country’s national airline appeal to staff to work without pay, while a whole string of small, struggling airports, many of which are highly geared, are on the edge financially. I am the last person to want to put extra burdens on a struggling industry at such a time, but the fact is that people’s lives and the long-term health of crew members are at stake. It is therefore strange that the Department for Transport has done little quality research on the subject.

When the Department asked the Committee on Toxicity—an independent body that advises the Government, including, incidentally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agricultural issues—to review all the available evidence, the committee was unable to arrive at firm conclusions. As my hon. Friend said, however, it recommended further research to determine what substances are released via the bleed air system and whether exposure to those substances could result in acute or chronic ill health. The committee recommended two types of study: first, an exposure monitoring study, with on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft; and, secondly, further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the Department giving the first study to Cranfield university. Cranfield has an excellent record, and I do not want to be critical of it, but it is very nearly an in-house organisation. Indeed, its staff include quite a number of Government employees, including quite a lot of uniformed people—indeed, my father-in-law worked there at one point. There is therefore a legitimate concern that simply giving the study to Cranfield, rather than putting it out to competitive tender, raises serious questions over whether the investigation is independent. To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission the second study—the cross-sectional neuropsychological study—but the Minister may be able to update us on that. Will he tell us why the first study could not be put out to competitive tender, and where we have got to on the second study?

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about co-operation with the FAA, and I repeat the question. I have had complaints from people involved in the campaign that we have dragged our feet in co-operating with the FAA when Britain could have made a significant difference.

The hon. Member for Brighton—

Norman Baker: Lewes. Brighton is a suburb of Lewes.

Mr. Brazier: Indeed; like Newcastle and Gateshead.

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The other issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is oxygen on flights, and it is a serious concern. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the early-day motion has attracted more than 200 signatures. There is a legitimate point to consider. A safe air supply for people who require oxygen must involve the presence of cylinders to top up their need for greater concentration. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.

Contamination of aircraft cabins by engine oil fumes is a serious aviation safety concern for both aircrew and passengers. There is significant evidence to warrant going beyond just a bit more study to get to the bottom of the matter. I hope that the Government will today make it clear that they will urgently and thoroughly investigate the problem so that the necessary steps to make crew and passengers safe on our aeroplanes are taken.

3.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing it. The issue is serious, and I say that genuinely. However, we must talk about facts and real evidence, and there has been an awful lot of speculation in some of the contributions. I want to answer hon. Members’ questions as clearly as possible, and to show that this country has been at the forefront in taking forward some of the current work. Bearing in mind the depth of knowledge of some hon. Members, I am sure that they are well aware of that. I will explain where we are, and answer as many questions as clearly and thoroughly as I can.

Air quality in commercial passenger aircraft is high, and much of the information that we have heard today would be worrying for anyone who is thinking of travelling on a plane. To put the matter into perspective, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) referred to numbers and said that the Government had changed the number of events from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. The Committee on Toxicity estimated in 2007 that fume events occurred in approximately 0.05 per cent. of flights, or one in 2,000. In 2008, 97 contaminated air events were reported to the CAA under the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme from 1.2 million passenger and cargo flights by UK carriers.

Of the 97 reported occurrences of contaminated air by aircraft type, 38 were on a Boeing 757, 19 were on an Airbus 319, and six were on an Airbus 320. Some hon. Members referred to British Aerospace’s BAe 146, and there were two reported occurrences in 2008 for that aircraft. They asked why such fume events happen, and why nothing has been done in any shape or form. Mechanical system malfunctions occur and may result in abnormal operating conditions, but the CAA has taken remedial action to help operators of specific aircraft to reduce the incidence of fume events, such as engine oil servicing procedures and engine sealing modifications. Those are some of the steps that have been taken to help the industry and those who work on planes and travel by air. It is essential to ensure that health and safety provisions for both categories of people are of the highest level.

I recognise the concern that has been raised, but we must have evidence, and we have undertaken work on
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that. I assure everyone who is listening to our debate and those who read Hansard that it is not a proven fact that cabin air harms health. Hon. Members rightly said that work on that should be done and should continue, and I intend to show that it is being done, and that we have the highest quality of studies.

Norman Baker: The Minister said that there is no proof that cabin air causes problems. Does he think that stewardesses and pilots collapsing with brain damage is a coincidence?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that I am saying that we need evidence to conclude that such fume events cause those illnesses. I am not suggesting that they have not happened, but to ensure that they do not happen again, we must know exactly what causes them. That is why research is necessary. It is complex research and it is being done as we speak.

Mr. Brazier: To return to the Minister’s figures, he said that approximately 100 events were recorded in a year. Several of us mentioned the study that suggested that only 4 per cent. of events are recorded, but if the average number of passengers on the aircraft on which such events took place was 150, 15,000 passengers would be affected. If 4 per cent. of those are reported, 25 x 15,000 is about one third of a million passengers affected in a single year. That does not mean that all were brain damaged, but it provides an idea of the scale of what we are talking about, especially as no one denies the link between organophosphates and brain damage.

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that no one denies that link, but 97 reported occurrences does not mean that they led to x, y or z occurrences of illness or disease. The jump to the calculations that he just made about 15,000 passengers being affected and so on is a big leap. I am sure that we all want to make certain that the evidence exists, so that we can ensure that if there is a problem, we can take the necessary steps to eradicate it, but again, that is not straightforward.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

Paul Clark: Let me make some headway and I will give way shortly. I want to deal with this issue. There seems to be a suggestion that people are not reporting incidents because they do not want to rock the boat. Well, the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme—MORS—was established in 1976. It is regarded worldwide as a safety reporting model and is used in many other areas. It exists to ensure that the CAA is advised of hazardous or potentially hazardous incidents and defects. In addition, even if what hon. Members have alluded to is the case and employees will not report incidents, there is a confidential reporting line to the CAA, which is called CHIRP—the confidential human factors incident reporting programme. That is for those who do not want to let their employer know that they are reporting such an occurrence. It would therefore be wrong to say that the reporting system does not help employees to report occurrences. It does. That facility exists through both MORS and the confidential route.

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Mr. Ellwood: With respect to the Minister, we have ample time in which to debate these issues. I am pleased that he is taking interventions, but there is still another half hour to go—plenty of time for us to debate. He has spent 10 minutes arguing about statistics, and they can be read in different ways. He began his remarks by saying that this is a serious issue. I would like to move on to the action points—what he intends to do—and I think that he wants to move on to that, too.

On the point that the Minister is making now, however, does he agree that, rather than depending entirely on whether a pilot comes forward to make a report, it is time that we had a monitoring system to measure the quality of air on aircraft? That would be an independent way of checking whether the toxins are making it on board, as opposed to leaning heavily on the reports written by pilots, who might or might not fill out a form.

Paul Clark: I am delighted to say that that is exactly what I want to move on to, which is why I did not particularly want to give way again. I do want to get to some of the substance of the debate, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, the reporting procedures have to be one of the first stages of dealing with the issue, which we all agree is important and needs investigation. We cannot allow the reporting system to be undermined in a way that suggests that it is not robust. That is why I wanted to deal with that at the outset.

Most modern commercial aircraft are fitted with high efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filters, which are extremely efficient at removing airborne contaminants such as droplets, bacteria and large viral particles. Typically, the air in the cabin is exchanged every two to three minutes. This is the only country that I know of in which there is a general duty to safeguard the health of persons aboard aircraft. Our commercial aviation safety record is second to none. That is a hard-won reputation, and it has been won by all players in the industry and all staff who work in the industry. As I said, we are the only country in the world with a duty to safeguard the health of persons on board aircraft—the health of the travelling passengers as well as employees. The Civil Aviation Act 2006 amended the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to charge the Secretary of State with

The functions of the CAA were also amended to include the health of persons on board aircraft. That change is a world first, as far as we know, and was welcomed by Parliament. It follows that we take the issues of safety and air quality in passenger planes extremely seriously.

We have a good story to tell on the research that we have put in hand to try to get to the bottom of cabin air fume events. Occasionally there are bad smells or fume events, as they are referred to, during flights, and those have been reported on a number of aircraft types that are used around the world. That is a valid point: we must remember that this is not a UK-only matter. It raises issues that we need to take into account. Reports to the CAA show that sometimes one pilot reports a bad smell and the other detects nothing. An unpleasant smell is undesirable but does not necessarily harm health. That is partly the point that I was making to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Conversely, carbon monoxide has no smell, yet it kills people in their homes every year.

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Pilots who have experienced fume events report a variety of short or long-term symptoms of ill health, but it is not certain that those symptoms are work-related. Reports of those events are very infrequent. As I said, the figures for 2008 show that there were 97 reported contaminated air fume events. That is out of 1.2 million flights.

So what has been done, bearing in mind the small number of fume events? First, we commissioned the independent Committee on Toxicity—a panel made up of toxicologists from various universities, not Government stooges. They completed a substantial review of evidence in September 2007 and concluded that the evidence available did not establish a link between cabin air and pilot ill health, nor did it rule one out. We have therefore begun innovative research to investigate concerns about potential contaminants in cabin air and to try to fill the gap in knowledge identified by the Committee on Toxicity. Again, we are leading the world in that work.

No one has previously captured samples of cabin air during normal conditions and fume events and analysed them to see what substances they contain and in what concentrations. The science is difficult, because fume events are unpredictable and can last only a couple of minutes—if that, in some cases. We have that research in hand as a priority. To date, we have commissioned functionality tests to identify equipment capable of capturing fume events in real time. The report was published on 21 February 2008. We are now confident that we have the equipment that will do the job. We have begun a more substantive phase of in-flight functionality tests to assemble data on the substances in the cabin air during fume events. That work builds on the equipment and methodology tested in the first phase. Several airlines volunteered to take part by allowing an independent scientist to come on board with sampling equipment. Testing began in 2008 and is continuing in 2009.

The tests to identify suitable scientific equipment capable of capturing fume events were peer-reviewed by scientists in the UK, Europe and the USA. It is important that peer review happens. The matter does not pertain only to the UK or UK aircraft. It is relevant across the aviation world. Future work in that area will be similarly peer-reviewed before publication.

I shall deal with some of the specific issues raised before moving on to other matters. We heard that Flybe is no longer flying the British Aerospace 146. The company has upgraded its fleet, as all airlines do, for a variety of reasons, not least to stay competitive and to ensure efficiency. However, it does not say that it was to do with air contamination. I realise what is being said, but it was a great leap to suggest that Flybe got rid of its BAe 146 fleet because of contamination. Indeed, I have already pointed out that the last reported statistics show only two cases in that time. It is a leap of faith to say that the company did it purely because of problems of contamination; that is not the case.

It is far too premature to draw an analogy with Gulf war syndrome. A substantial amount of work has yet to be done on that. However, military service is not directly comparable to working in private commercial employment. Our primary aim has to be to get evidence of what occurs during fume events, to see what contaminates are released, and to analyse them.

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Mr. Maples: Has the Minister moved on from the toxicity study? If so, will he tell us when it is expected to report? People are anxious to know. They are grateful that the study is taking place, but they want to know when they will receive the answers.

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I have indicated that the work is continuing; it is being done in conjunction with specific airlines, which have offered to help with the study. That work is being undertaken now. We expect it to continue for the majority of the year, and then to be written up. It will then be peer-tested, unless there is anything of particular alarm. It has to be peer-tested for the reasons that I gave. We expect the report to be published in the early part of next year.

I should explain the work undertaken by Professor van Netten at the university of British Columbia. We wrote to the professor, asking for further information on whether the samples were taken with the airlines’ authority and transported in sterile conditions to guarantee that they were free of extraneous contamination. He replied:

That is precisely what we are seeking to achieve with the current research project.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East cited studies from Germany and Australia that concluded that the air was contaminated. I am not aware that Australian or German airlines have banned any of those aircraft. Again, the evidence to date is not robust or clear enough to convince the regulator.

Mr. Ellwood: I am saddened by the direction taken by the Minister. He seems to be trying to knock away every bit of evidence that has been put to him. He is right to say that the tests are difficult to do on planes and that they cannot be done in laboratory conditions. However, the point has been made that there is enough evidence to raise eyebrows. For the Minister to lean on a report that is not to be published for a couple of years suggests that the Government are not taking the matter as seriously as they should. I posed a firm question to the Minister: I asked whether it was time to install monitoring systems in aircraft. He did not give a reply. I pose the same question again.

Paul Clark: The Government are leading world research into the very issues that are of concern both to the hon. Gentleman and to me as Minister. We must ensure that we have the evidence, and thus know exactly what the issues are, so that if we find evidence that gives cause for concern, we can then help and protect those who work in the industry and those who travel by air. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it will have to be based on the evidence. This Government and this country are leading that research. He is right that it will not be done be in laboratory conditions. That makes it genuinely more difficult to ensure that we get the systems and processes needed to get precisely the evidence that he and I seek.

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