Monday, May 11, 2009

Fear the Air(line)?

Here is an interesting video I saw online. It deals with a relatively unknown (at least to the public) toxic exposure that can potentially occur during commercial airline flights. The chemical of concern, tricresyl phosphate (TCP), is used as a lubricating compound in jet fuel. It is a known neurotoxin and also happens to be a component of nerve gas. The exposure happens like this: the air that we breathe while on board the aircraft actually comes from the engines through a ‘bleed air’ system. The system works by taking air drawn through the engine, cooling it, then piping the cooled air into the cabin. If there are any faulty or leaky seals inside the engine, the vapors from the hot engine oil can mix with the air that is pumped into the cabin, leading to potentially toxic exposure to passengers and crew.

The immediate health effects are many and resemble intoxication in some affected individuals. Other health outcomes are potentially long-lasting: confusion, uncontrollable shaking, tremors, paralysis and chronic fatigue. The bad news, is that passengers are not the only ones at risk. The crew, including pilots, can also inhale this toxic gas and become impaired during the flight.

The airlines are, of course, resisting monitoring cabin air for this, and other chemicals. Monitoring air quality in the cabins seems like a good idea as first step in safeguarding the public’s health. However, one must ask, what action would they (could they) take if high levels of TCP were detected in cabin air? Are there alternative fuels that could be substituted for what is used now? And how would any changes in operating procedures or fuel used affect the cost of an airline ticket? The last time I flew, I was charged an extra $12 per flight just to choose my seat in advance. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that any action taken by (or against) the airline to confront this issue will come back to bite you in your wallet. Fly the friendly skies…..

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