Reprinted from the Chicago Tribune.
Airplane cabin air can turn toxic, sickening passengers and crew, a problem that’s been alleged for decades in the U.S. and around the world, says a lawsuit filed Monday against Chicago-based aircraft-maker Boeing Co.
Boeing’s “dirty little secret,” as the lawsuit calls it, in one instance led to those flight attendants vomiting and three of them passing out during a coast-to-coast flight that was diverted to Chicago in 2013. They were taken to a Chicago hospital, and two of them never returned to work, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Attorneys for the flight attendants claim the crew was “poisoned” and that Boeing’s “design defects” and failure to warn anybody about the dangers of toxic cabin air were fraudulent and negligent, and that the company is “knowingly endangering airplane passengers.”
One expert said that such “fume events” are relatively common, likely happening on at least one U.S. flight per day.
However, Boeing over the years has maintained that there is no problem with bleed air, and that contaminants in cabin air remain at safe levels — assertions that it says are backed up by independent studies. On Monday, Boeing declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Chuck Horning, chairman of the aviation maintenance science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., said contaminated bleed air can happen, but in his mind it’s not a common occurrence. “Under normal conditions, I would find it hard to believe this would be a problem,” Horning said.
All commercial aircraft models manufactured by Boeing and its rival Airbus of France use bleed-air systems, except for Boeing’s newest model, the 787 Dreamliner. Fume events stem from jet engine oil contaminating the air. Contamination can happen for many reasons, including leaking engine seals, engine malfunctions and overfilling of an oil reservoir, according to the lawsuit.
Inhaling toxic cabin air can cause injuries because chemicals from heated jet engine oil include neurotoxins such as organophosphates, which are used in pesticides and nerve gases, the suit said.
Similar allegations about health effects from bleed-air systems have been made around the world, recently gaining attention in the United Kingdom and Australia, according to published reports.
The lawsuit filed Monday documents how Boeing has been “put on notice” more than 40 times that its aircraft were “unreasonably dangerous” but it failed to fix the problem by installing filters or sensors and alarms that could alert cabin crew of a toxic-fume problem.
“Our focus is on Boeing not fixing a problem they’ve known about for more than 60 years,” Rainey Booth, one of the attorneys for the flight attendants, said in an interview. “The risk to any individual passenger might be low on a daily basis, but what we know is, every day people in this country are exposed.”
Rainey said the flight attendants are seeking unspecified monetary damages, but the suit goes beyond that. “This needs to be fixed,” Rainey said. “This is a very fixable, unnecessary risk.”
Judith Anderson, an industrial hygienist who researches flight attendant health issues for the Association of Flight Attendants union, called using bleed air “a flawed design.”
“You shouldn’t be pulling air off an engine for ventilation air when you know that the engine can leak toxic oil into the air supply — without installing appropriate design measures to prevent the breathing air from being contaminated,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
According to the lawsuit:
The Alaska Airlines flight attendants are suing over an incident on July 12, 2013, when they were part of the crew on a relatively new Boeing model 737 — manufactured in 2012 — on a flight from Boston to San Diego. They noticed an unpleasant smell in the cabin, and Woods soon began feeling sick and eventually passed out. Neben told the flight captain that fumes were coming from the vents and that her throat was burning, and she was not feeling well. Oskardottir then said she didn’t feel well, fainted and vomited. Two passengers with medical training tried to help. Then Ramirez and Neben got sick.
“I remember walking down the aisle and just gripping the seatbacks because I felt like I was going to fall over,” Woods said in an interview. “The next thing I know, I was on the galley floor, looking up at Faye who was paging for assistance. She was mumbling incoherently into the PA system.