Airlines facing 'toxic air' claims for compensation

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The news that 17 former and serving cabin crew members are planning legal action against British Airlines was featured recently on the Victoria Derbyshire programme and raised questions about the air quality onboard a number of British flights where smoke or fumes were released into the cabin.

The Unite union is calling for a public inquiry into the effects of contaminated cabin air, after the BBC uncovered uncensored safety reports highlighting 251 separate incidents of fumes or smoke inside a large passenger jet operated by an unnamed British airline, as well as testimony from a current pilot.

The risk of a 'fume event' is allegedly caused when a fault occurs in the engine seals, releasing a number of potentially poisonous gases. Campaigners allege repeated exposure to such fumes together with long-term, low-level exposure to chemicals is damaging their long-term health particularly affecting the central nervous system and brain.

So how concerned should airline staff and passengers be about the so called "aerotoxic syndrome" and the quality of air on board flights?

An estimate by Professor Alan Boobis, director of Public Health England's toxicology unit places these fume events at "one in every 2,000 (British) flights" and adds even during these events the levels of contamination "are low, and probably below those which would be affecting health in humans".

Accordingly there is disagreement about whether such a condition exists, with contrasting evidence suggesting the individuals may be suffering from a "nocebo effect", a false belief they are being harmed by a chemical after smelling an odour in the cabin.

The Civil Aviation Authority in its statement to the programme stated "There is no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible long-term health effects - although such a link cannot be excluded."

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