Blurred vision, disorientation, headaches, cough, chest tightness, loss of balance… For several years, flight crews have reported symptoms which would be associated with potential contamination of the air in cabins or aircraft cockpits by different pollutants. A legal expertise, which Le Parisien unveiled at the end of Septemberdoes not exclude the existence of consequences on the health of aeronautics personnel.
The 30,000 employed pilots, stewards and hostesses in France were therefore impatiently waiting the position of the National Health Security Agency (ANSES). In an opinion published this Wednesday, October 25, which we were able to consult, ANSES admits that these symptoms “have been mentioned in several studies and grouped under the term aerotoxic syndrome”.
“Neurological and respiratory symptoms prevail”
“Among the clinical signs reported in aerotoxic syndrome, neurological and respiratory symptoms prevail,” specify the experts mandated by the courts following the complaint against X filed in 2018 by two former airline pilots. “In aircraft cabins, multiple sources of pollutants are identified, which can be linked to the materials used, the operation of the aircraft and in particular the ventilation system, the operations carried out on the ground and in flight,” recognizes the Anses, which confirms information that few passengers know.
“In the vast majority of aircraft, the air supplying the cabin is partly taken from the engines. Compounds from engine oil or its thermal degradation are commonly suspected of polluting cabin air, which is referred to in the literature as “smoke event”. But in its expert report, ANSES states that it cannot “conclude either the origin of the pollutants detected in cabin air or their concentration levels, due to insufficient quality data”.
On the other hand, ANSES admits that hostesses, stewards and pilots are exposed to “multiple sources of pollutants”. “Between cabin cleaning products, airport air pollution which enters the plane when we open the doors, cleaning products used and aircraft de-icing operations, we can find interior of the cabin of fine particles, organophosphorus substances and flame retardants”, lists the health and work scientific director of Anses, Henri Bastos.
Could this cocktail of pollutants explain the symptoms that some flying professionals complain about? “If aerotoxic syndrome is not the subject of a medical consensus and there is a lack of data to quantify exactly what we find in cabin air,” admits Henri Bastos, “we have, however, noted a increased incidence of skin cancers and leukemia among flight personnel which may be linked to cosmic and solar radiation.
“Further research is essential”
A project led by the Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) is currently underway on mortality, from cancers and non-cancerous diseases, linked to exposure to cosmic radiation suffered by personnel flying on planes. But ANSES believes that we must go further. “Additional research is essential to clarify the effects on the health of flight crews linked to their profession (in particular the impact of staggered and extended schedules) and to the quality of the air in the cabins.”
Hence the need to identify “the circumstances that could lead to particular pollution of this air”. “Airlines must participate in the assessment of the risks incurred by their employees,” insists Henri Bastos. Some have taken the lead. A study carried out by two research teams in conjunction with Air France is underway to measure the impact of odor or smoke releases during certain flights.
What about passengers who are used to traveling very frequently on planes? “They may indeed be subject to the same constraints as in-flight personnel, except that they do not benefit from medical monitoring as professionals,” underlines Henri Bastos. If they have symptoms that resemble those described by the flight crew, their attending physician can refer them to a center specializing in occupational and environmental pathology.”