A global campaign has been launched to mandate the introduction of filtration and warning systems on commercial aircraft and address concerns over alleged ‘aerotoxic syndrome’.

The ‘Aerotoxicity Litigation’ concerns claims by employees of airlines who allege that they have been exposed to toxic substances in aircraft cabin air and have thus sustained personal injury (including neurological damage).

The basis of the allegations centre around the system by which the cabin air is provided. The system makes use of ‘bleed air’. It sucks in outside air through the compression section of the aircraft’s engine with some air being ‘bled off’ to provide cabin air for the occupants and the rest of the air being used for a variety of purposes some as anti-ice systems and for the engines. This process is alleged to result in hot engine fumes contaminating the air as it passes through the compression section of the engine before entering the cabin areas.

The ‘bleed air’ is not filtered and as such is alleged to create a risk to crews and passengers. Whilst aircraft do have HEPA filters designed to remove bacteria and viruses from recirculated air in the cabin, these filters are not designed to remove the types of contaminates which it is alleged enter the air from the engine. This system is present on almost all commercial aircraft with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner being an exception.

The implications for airlines, already under economic pressure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is significant, both in terms of the costs of claims made against them but also the potential costs of having to retrofit fleets of commercial airlines.

The issue is highly contentious. The airlines themselves do not accept that the cabin air presents any hazard and in fact say that cabin air is cleaner than air found in offices and homes as a result of their use of HEPA filters. In addition, there are significant disputes on causation issues relating to ‘bleed air’ systems and the alleged neurotoxic effects. There are a wide variety of symptoms which have been said to arise from exposure to contaminated cabin air which have been collectively labelled ‘aerotoxic syndrome’. The science behind these is also highly contentious with a number of studies having been undertaken.

The matter has already come before the Courts in various ways internationally and in England & Wales. In particular, the inquest into the death of pilot Richard Westgate in 2017 raised issues as to contaminated air. However, at the pre-inquest review, those issues were found not within the scope of the inquest. In addition, aerotoxic syndrome was raised in an inquest into the death of Matthew Bass, who worked as a member of the cabin crew team. These issues are now coming before the civil courts. A collective case management order was made in June 2019 concerning a number of claims brought in the High Court by former employees of a number of major airlines.

The latest development on this topic has arisen with the launch of a global campaign calling for the mandatory introduction of measures including effective filtration systems on aircrafts coupled with warning systems. The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE) is a “global coalition of health and safety advocates” focussed on contaminated air issues and cabin air quality. It represents air crew and consumers which was established in 2006. The launch of their campaign on 15 February 2021 was supported by two brief videos explaining their allegations, which were provided in 40 languages and can be found on their website.

Coupled with the launch of the present campaign, the GCAQE will be hosting a four-day “2021 Aircraft Cabin Air Conference” between 15 and 18 March 2021 which will be the largest conference to have taken place on such issues. In addition, the GCAQE has also created a global reporting system for contaminated air events which is available for use by anyone wishing to report such an event.

The press release from the GCAQE can be found here.