Republished from: The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX
Crew members from three previous flights of the US Airwaysplane that made people sick this week in Charlotte still have not returned to work because of illness related to those flights.
Researchers say passengers on those previous flights might have unknowingly been exposed to toxic fumes, and symptoms might not show up for days or weeks.
Eight pilots and crew members on flights in December and January have not returned to work due to their symptoms, a flight attendant union representative said Wednesday.
“They’re all breathing in the same air,” said Judith Murawski, a safety researcher for the Association of Flight Attendants. “There’s no question that passengers might be affected, and they just have no idea.”
U.S. Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said Wednesday that passengers on at least one of the previous flights — Flight 1041 from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to Charlotte on Jan. 16 — were notified of possible exposure.
The plane involved in all four incidents, a Boeing 767, caused nine people to be taken to Carolinas Medical Center on Tuesday morning after they complained of symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic fumes. Two pilots, five flight attendants and two passengers were taken from Flight 985, which was scheduled to leave for Jamaica but returned to the gate after an electrical smell was reported in the cabin.
US Airways mechanics determined Wednesday that two bad seals on a rear door of the plane — tail No. 0251 — caused the problem, said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration’s southern office in Atlanta.
“The bad seals, combined with a strong tailwind, allowed engine exhaust into the plane,” said Bergen.
Mohr said the seals probably would have performed properly when the cabin became pressurized. She said the airline will not clear the plane for flights until it conducts a “deeper review,” given the plane’s recent history of problems.
The incident is the aircraft’s fourth in three months. On Dec. 28 and 30, crew members were sickened from a leak of hydraulic fluid on flights to Puerto Rico, Mohr said. No one was taken to a hospital then.
The plane was cleared for flight in early January, but on Jan. 16, eight passengers and seven crew members complained of headaches and nausea on a flight to Charlotte from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Several were taken to a hospital in Charlotte. The plane was grounded while workers searched for and repaired what the company described in an e-mail to flight attendants as a leak of oil fumes into the cabin air system.
Crew members from each of those three flights remain out of work — including all but one of the seven crew members from the Jan. 16 incident, said Murawski. Crew members, including one based in Charlotte, are complaining of several symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic fumes, said Murawski, who remains in regular contact. Those symptoms, which have not improved for some, include severe headaches, memory loss and respiratory problems.
Crew members also have sent blood samples to Clem Furlong, a University of Washington scientist who is doing research to determine if they were exposed to toxic engine oil fumes. Factors such as diet and medications may explain why some people are more vulnerable to toxin exposure, Furlong said, but passengers would be susceptible to exposure.
If passengers experience similar symptoms, Furlong said, they should let their doctor know they may have been exposed to potentially toxic fumes.
On the Jan. 16 flights, attendants noticed that passengers asked for more icepacks and tissues than usual on the flight from Charlotte to St. Thomas, said Murawski. Those passengers were not notified of the possibility of exposure to toxic fumes, said Mohr. The complaints about headaches and nausea happened on the return flight.
Murawski said problems involving oil fumes in planes are more common across the industry than people think. She researched 18 months of FAA reports this decade and found almost one report per day of incidents involving oil fumes and odors.
“When pilots are exposed to these fumes, there’s a flight safety issue,” she said.
The FAA could not immediately provide statistics Wednesday on how frequently fumes are reported on aircraft.
The issue of fumes prompted union complaints last fall to US Airways — as well as a February letter from the leaders of pilot and flight attendant unions complaining about problems on aircraft No. 0251. The letter, which called for a formal investigation into the incidents, said that crew members had gone through a “great deal of suffering,” and “There is no way of knowing how many passengers who flew on AC251 during that period are also experiencing neurological or respiratory symptoms, but have not yet connected their symptoms to the aircraft.”
A union representative in Charlotte was skeptical Wednesday that the US Airways diagnosis of rear seal problems in Tuesday’s incident would solve the issues.
“I’m not saying they’re lying, or that didn’t happen,” said Mike Flores, an official with the US Airways chapter of the flight attendants union. “But I’m not a believer that this plane is fit to fly.”
Flores said crew members might refuse to fly on the plane.
“This airplane has had four separate incidents, and crew members are still out of work,” he said. “What are we waiting for, a fifth?” Staff Writer Steve Lyttle contributed.
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