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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Airplane Air

Air Date: Week of

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Flight attendants in Seattle are suing airplane manufacturers over possible chemical contamination of cabin air. USA Today reporter Byron Acohido discusses the suit with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: A lawsuit pending in Seattle might change the quality of the air that we breathe in airplane cabins. The case against Boeing and Honeywell deals with the possible contamination of cabin area in MD-80s and DC-9s. Most airliners have an auxiliary power unit, or APU, that brings in air when the planes are on the ground. On these two models the APU is located near where excess hydraulic fluid and lubricants collect. Some Alaska Airlines flight attendants filed the suit claiming these toxic chemicals can sometimes get sucked in through the fresh air valve. The resulting exposure, they allege, has caused them neurological damage. Byron Acohido reported on this case for USA TODAY. He described the flight attendants’ claims.

ACOHIDO: The flight attendants claim that they have suffered a constellation of injuries that basically amount to a poisoning of the central nervous system and brain damage. They call it a constellation of symptoms and they range anywhere from bloody noses, disorientation, flu-like symptoms all the way up to chronic memory loss, the loss of the ability to multi-task. In one of the plaintiffs’ case, she’s documented having shakes of her torso and arms. Six years later, today she still has trouble with these involuntary shakes.

CURWOOD: What’s the airline’s response to these claims?

ACOHIDO: The airline’s basic response is that leaks occur so rarely as to not be a problem. And in instances when any sort of fluids leak and get into the cabin air supply do happen, that the amount of organophosphates in the particles that are circulating in the cabin air are so small as to not pose any serious health risk to passengers or crew.

CURWOOD: How common are these types of airplanes, and which airlines have them?

ACOHIDO: The MD-80s and DC-9s, there are about a little over 1,700 still in use around the world. And American Airlines is the largest operator of them; they have about 360. Delta has a couple hundred. Northwest is a big operator. And then there are operators in Europe and Asia and others in America, as well.

CURWOOD: I understand, at one point, somebody tested putting some fluid into one of these air intake valves for an airliner cabin. And what happened in that test?

ACOHIDO: Well, the test you’re referring to was a rather extraordinary experiment that was conducted by then the chief of maintenance for Alaska Airlines. Back in 1996 he was struggling to address all these reports coming back from these crews about smoke in the cabin and injury to the flight attendants and even to passengers. So he parked an aircraft, the MD-80, in a hangar and went inside the cabin with at least two other senior managers, and then they turned on the APU and instructed a mechanic to squirt eight ounces of hydraulic fluid into the air intake of the APU. And when that happened, within a matter of a few minutes the managers inside the cabin noticed what they described as a mist or a haze. And right away, they started having symptoms-- they started having eye irritations and coughs and headaches.

CURWOOD: I have to say, I’ve been in MD-80s and DC-9s where I’ve seen a misting and I always assumed that it was because maybe it was a hot day outside and the moisture was condensing inside the plane as it was cooled, or something like that.

ACOHIDO: That could be. There could be condensation, moisture, I guess, theoretically. But in order for us to independently establish whether this was happening on a more widespread basis than just at Alaska, I took a look at some documents called "Service Difficulty Reports," which are one page reports filed with the Federal Aviation Administration by airlines any time they have a mechanical problem of a certain magnitude. And what we found was that smoke in the cabin, odor, hazes, were rather widely reported over the last three decades by airlines that use MD-80s and DC-9s.

CURWOOD: Now, if this jury in Seattle finds fault with Boeing and Honeywell, what will happen?

ACOHIDO: If the jury finds for the plaintiffs, it could end up stigmatizing the MD-80/DC-9 model. But on a wider basis, I think it could maybe elevate the whole debate about whether cabin air or contaminated cabin area, especially, should be looked into more seriously. Because what we’re talking about here is one of the last few public spaces where the air supply has not been sort of fully addressed from the standpoint of health effects to just average people.

CURWOOD: Byron Acohido is a reporter with USA TODAY. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ACOHIDO: You’re welcome, Steve. It was a pleasure being here.

[MUSIC: Jefferson Airplane, "Blues from an Airplane,"]



USA Today Article – "Verdict expected soon on toxic air aboard jets"">


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