Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Letter from Mr Ian Panton


  1.  I am writing in response to the call for evidence on the health effects of air travel, with particular emphasis on any relevant new evidence that has emerged since 2000, and on the extent to which Government, regulators and the airline industry have kept pace with such evidence.

  2.  I would specifically address recommendations 1.43 (c), (d) and (e) in the 2000 Report on Air Travel and Health.

  3.  In June 2005 I forwarded a letter, to Dr Ruge at the CAA expressing my concerns about contamination of the breathing air supply to the pressure cabin. Dr Ruge confirmed that the "results (of UK Government and CAA initiated and sponsored research into cabin air quality)" which "did not suggest that there is a health risk for passengers, including infants, or crew" were contained in the paper Cabin Air, published in 2004,[82] and that "Other research has been carried out and can be found on the DH website".[83]

  4.  Looking first at: CAA Paper 2004/04 Title: Cabin Air Quality,[84] I found that: "The research described in this report addresses the effect of cabin air contamination on the pilot's ability to safely fly and land the aircraft. The CAA decided to conduct this research following a small number of events where flight crew effectiveness was reduced, possibly due to oil products present in cabin air. Although some references are made concerning long term health effects, the scope of this research did not include an attempt to determine the extent of any such risk."

  5.  So, with reference to health effects, especially to passengers, and certainly infants, this paper appeared irrelevant. However, this paper did provide, at Appendix A to Chapter 2 (page 14), a graphic illustration of contamination found within a breathing air duct.

  6.  Moving onto the other research; the overview from the DfT[85] led to the main document: Client Report: Extending CabinAir measurements to include older aircraft types utilised in high volume short haul operation Client report number 212034.[86]

  7.  Whilst the work was informative I could not find any reference to the diversity, including infants, of passengers carried. Accordingly I again asked Dr Ruge for any further "UK Government and CAA initiated and sponsored research into cabin air quality" that do not "suggest that there is a health risk for passengers, including infants, or crew". I received no further information.

  8.  On 8 December 2005 (Hansard, House of Lords, Column GC133) The Countess of Mar stated:

    "Despite the two key recommendations of the Select Committee identified by the AHWG to the Building Research Establishment for its client report, extending cabin air measurements to include older aircraft types utilised in high volume short haul operation, of October 2003, there is still no regular monitoring of cabin air quality. The recommendations stated:

    "We recommend that airlines collect, record and use at least some of the basic cabin environment data being continuously monitored, not only to give authoritative substance to their refutation of the common allegations, but also to provide a better basis for public confidence in these matters. Indeed we are surprised that they do not already do so... We recommend airlines to carry out simple and inexpensive cabin atmosphere sampling programmes from time to time, and to make provision for spot sample collection in the case of unusual circumstances. This would be helpful to passengers and staff and also benefit the airlines themselves."

    Recent Written Answers given by the Minister to my questions have elicited the fact that there is no monitoring and no filtration on aeroplanes. The only time that an aircraft is monitored is when it is commissioned. That is a horrendous thought. Why, five years after the Select Committee made those simple, inexpensive recommendations, has nothing been done to implement them? I am told that an efficient filtering system costs a few thousand pounds—peanuts when compared with the cost of an aircraft, the cost of sick leave for a crew or, worse still, the loss of an aeroplane full of passengers.

  9.  On 8 March 2006 (Hansard Column 812), in response to Lord Davies of Oldham, the Countess said:

    "My Lords, the Minister called in aid the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report. Need I remind him that it did not say that there was no problem over contaminated air and that it recommended that air quality in cabins and cockpits should be regularly monitored? It is now six years later and no such monitoring has taken place."

  10.  As to new evidence there was a paper published in 2005 The effect of high altitude commercial air travel on oxygen saturation, and in 2006 Activation of coagulation system during air travel: a crossover study."[87]

  The latter is quite important since the role of cabin altitude on oxygen in blood content is beginning to be known for a general population. However, the relation of blood oxygen content and air pressure to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) contaminant health effects is, I believe, unknown.

  11.  I remain concerned that:

    —    Some of the recommendations of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee have not been implemented;

    —    Given there is no filtration nor monitoring of the breathing air supply to the pressure cabin it is surely impossible to ensure that this life critical supply is maintained, all stages of transit, at an optimum level?

  12.  Perhaps the way forward lies with the Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) which, I am given to understand, will not use a bleed air supply for the pressure cabin.

17 June 2007

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