Many airline pilots and flight attendants have experienced a "fume event" while flying. That can happen when bleed air from the engines (containing fumes from high-temperature synthetic oil) is brought into the cabin for heating purposes. If the concentration of toxic fumes is too high, then pilots, cabin crew, and passengers can become sickened or even pass out.
Two recent fume events have brought this problem to the public's attention. On August 2, 2017, a Jet Blue plane bound for Florida had to be diverted to Oklahoma City where several people were treated for breathing difficulties. A more serious fume event occurred in October 2016, when a British Airways Airbus A380 flying from California to London had to land in Vancouver after all 25 crew members became ill. And a British coroner concluded that samples taken from the body of a British Airways pilot who died in 2012 were ""consistent with exposure" to toxic fumes in cabin air.
Fume events happen several times a day
How frequently do fume events happen? One estimate is that 2.6 fume events happen daily, while the Airline Pilots Association claims that over the past decade, about 20,000 fume events have happened. That works out to 5 fume events per day. The disparity may result from the lack of uniform reporting procedures among the various carriers.
Immediate and long-term effects of toxic bleed air fumes
Contaminated bleed air does not smell oily or toxic. Its smell has been likened to that of a wet dog, mold, sour milk, or dirty socks. A person who inhales bleed air contaminated with engine oil may experience dizziness, temporary confusion, and inability to concentrate. These symptoms seem to dissipate once the person starts breathing clean air again.
The long-term effects of exposure to contaminated bleed air are disputed. A report issued by the Science and Technology Committee of the U.K. House of Lords in 2007 restated its conclusion made in 2000 that concerns about the risks of contaminated cabin air were "unsubstantiated".
On the other hand, several lawsuits have been filed against Boeing alleging long-term harm resulting from inhalation of toxic cabin fumes. In one of the lawsuits, four flight attendants for Alaska Airlines claim that all four became sick on a flight from Boston to San Diego, and that two passed out. All four flight attendants had to be taken to a hospital. Vanessa Woods, one of the flight attendants, has stated that she still suffers from "fatigue, tremors, memory loss and concentration problems" and that she was unable to return to work.
If you are a pilot, flight attendant, or aircraft maintenance technician who has suffered a work-related injury or illness, speak with an experienced workers' compensation attorney.