British Airways Under Fire After Pilots Death By Toxic Cabin Fumes

According to the Evening Standard among others, British Airways is facing a class action claim from employees. The reason for the claim is known as Aerotoxicity. This is reported as a condition that results from regular exposure to toxins coming from the aircraft’s engines.

At the centre of the legal case is a pilot called Richard Westgate. Mr Westgate was a pilot for British Airways. In 2012 he passed away in a Dutch hotel room after an overdose of sleeping pills. His family are suing for £500,000 in damages.

British Airways is at the centre of the aerotoxicity case. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

What is aerotoxicity?

Aerotoxicity is a process by where regular flyers are gradually exposed to toxins from an aircraft’s engines over a long period of time. It is so called as it specifically relates to aircraft, not occurring elsewhere. It is alleged that the toxins come from engine oil and leaking hydraulic fluid. There is currently no clear ruling on the long term effects of aerotoxicity according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

The toxins from the aircraft’s engines can supposedly enter the cabin through the bleed air system. The bleed air system is responsible for keeping the cabin of the aircraft pressurised. This is achieved by feeding the compressed air from the engine into the cabin. When this air becomes contaminated, it is known as a fume event.

Contaminants can enter the cabin through the bleed air system. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

CAA’s stance

The Civil Aviation Authority requires airlines to report fume events within 72 hours of the occurrence. Out of an estimated one million flights per year, the CAA recorded an average of 836 fume events per year. The CAA recognises that these events may cause short term health issues. Despite this, their official stance is “Long term ill health due to any toxic effect from cabin air is understood to be unlikely, although such a link cannot be ruled out.”

In an official public statement on the matter, the CAA says “A recent study commissioned by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which maintains responsibility for approving the safety of aircraft and setting aviation standards for European airlines, concluded that the air quality on flights it tested was similar or better than that observed in normal indoor environments.”

Toxins can include engine oil and hydraulic fluid. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

The current case

The current case involves the 43-year-old pilot, Mr Westgate. Mr Westgate’s family alleges that the aerotoxicity is to blame for the pilot’s sleeping pill overdose. Additionally, 93 other cabin crew members are seeking compensation for alleged aerotoxicity.

If the case succeeds, it could set a precedent for more cases of the same nature across the industry. While British Airways was unable to comment to Simple Flying on the matter. However, David Platt, who is representing British Airways said that the airline denies responsibility according to the Evening Standard.

What is your opinion on aerotoxicity? Let us know in the comments down below!

  1. …and, yet, there are countless pilots and flight attendants that work for 40 years on aircraft, without adverse effects. In reality, the cumulative effect of such fume exposure is probably less than living on a busy road, or near an industrial complex. It strikes me as being a statistical effect. Even without bleed-air fume events, remember that people at cruising altitude are breathing higher oxone levels, and being subjected to higher cosmic ray fluxes…so it’s difficult to attribute health issues to a single clear cause. Whichever way this case works out, it will earn money for some lawyers…

    1. Well, there is one element that you forget…
      The reason for those toxic fumes to be toxic is the content of the fumes.
      The engine oil contains neuro-toxic chemical elements.
      There have been events where flight attendants, passengers became completely delusional. It also happened that the short term effect resulted in both pilots not being fit to land, and needing the automatic system to do so in order to remain on the safe side.
      There are very clear cases where members of the crew breathed one time too much the fumes and have life long issues then. And as it is attacking directly the nervous system, it is not impossible to demonstrate that the gas is resulting in the degradation of it.
      Why is Boeing moving from the engine air pressurization system to the new Boeing system which actually manufactured the first jet aircraft with such a system (B787).
      According to the number of crew members that suffer from it, it should be taken seriously. The composition of the air in altitude and the lower protection level to the cosmic flux can’t really result today in relevant engineering solutions.
      However, the system going through the engine which contains neurotoxic is problematic, and can be solved.
      And you mention the effect to live next to a busy road or near an industrial complex as being worse…
      In fact, it’s much more complex. We know that vehicles emit tiny particles that are especially harmful to the lungs.
      Regarding industrial complexes, it depends what they are doing. In case of a coal power plant, it is highly similar to cars with lungs being the main issue.
      There are also all the deceases related to heavy metals and chemicals that are typical of industrial areas.
      In airplane, the neuro-toxicity is the real problem. Cars cannot have any neuro-toxic element in their fuel I think, because we breathe it too often for it to be acceptable.
      So don’t minimize it, those people really suffer from it. Some have lost everything in their life after the “one time too much”… And the worse is seeing airlines like easyjet who do 7 flights after a major fume event. After a very short check, nothing can be found. They continue to operate it. Next flight, a new event, new short checkup.
      And this during 3 days before deciding to go to the heavy maintenance facilities to check to full system. Do you think that it is the right way to keep crews safe?

      1. Old buses and taxis inevitably burn a certain amount of engine oil. Any low-temperaturw fire involving plastic produces a whole scala of scary toxins. Rubber abrasion against road surfaces causes release of plasticizer molecules. Cigarette smoke contains more than 70 different carcinogins. Take your pick…

        1. The point is the concentration… When the air comes from the place where there is a toxic possibility, there is a risk which is too important.
          Aircraft manufacturers should have worked on it for a while, and airlines should have pressured them for changes !
          You don’t seem to realize the difference between a closed environment and an open one. If there is an oil leak and you’re in the middle of the ocean, you will breathe the neurotoxin for a very long time.
          An old taxi that passes text to you, the concentration is lower, and it is not in a closed box…
          Solutions exist, this should be a mandatory element for every single aircraft that are being evaluated to be fit to fly passengers…

          And again, you compare non comparable things. People decide to smoke. People decide to live in a city, and the list of people responsible for the consequences is so long that you cannot claim anything regarding breathing issue. Plus, compared to other elements, those toxins in oil are problematic because oil is highly volatile… It means that if there is an issue, chances that the fumes enter the cabin are high. And chances that it enters everyone’s body is high as well…
          You need to differentiate things that have consequences on the very long term, and things that have consequences NOW when it happens.
          Delusional people in an aircraft! How safe is that?
          Here we are talking about an issue that is known and ignored by airlines and manufacturers…
          Same goes with passengers. What is the percentage of people that consider toxic fumes as a risk? None. 95% of the passengers would be shocked if you told them where the breathing air is coming from ! Here it is a purely economical decision, easier to use an existing technology.

          How comes that you accept this so easily?
          We are not talking about complex topics such as “there is no clean energy”, where you need to choose the least problematic. And in that specific case, engineering is easy, it is feasible to have solutions that don’t require to go through the engine. It is less than one million per aircraft for such a system… Come on, that’s ridiculous.

  2. Aerotoxicity does not occur with recent planes ,does it ? After how many years do the fumes start to poison cabins ?Basically some pilots want airlines to operate fairly recent planes only.Good luck with that.

    1. The only aircraft which is certain to not have any of those events is the B787, because the air doesn’t come from the engine.
      There are new filters I believe now that are supposed to avoid it… I don’t know what the status is.
      Are all airlines using those? Are those available for each jet models? Is it mandatory to use the safest filters?…

      1. How can you doubt it?
        I can’t understand you… So every other job on earth doesn’t have any kind of consequences like this…
        When tests are made on airplanes, most of them contain some neurotoxic particles coming from the oil. Those elements are not natural, it is chemicals made by the industry…
        I will just say one thing… On such a topic, even if the evidence is not clear, you need to take the cautious approach. You don’t want to create the next asbestos case right?
        Some insurers and reinsurers already exclude coverage for toxic fume events. Did you know that? (I work in this industry)… Why do you think that they are doing so? Because there is enough scientific elements to shift to the safe side. Insurance covers are a good indicator of cases where the authorities are too slow to react (lobbying, power of the money).
        Today, some of the main insurers left the investments in the fossil fuels because in the future, the climate change will be expensive for them.
        Some insurers don’t want to insure any roundup anymore…

        1. There are also lots of people who believe in Alien abductions 😏 Other people prefer to base their beliefs on hard facts 👍

          1. Do you really put those on the same levels?
            Cause here, this is a topic mentioned by authorities in the aviation industry, and also a topic mentioned by some parliaments governments…
            World health organization is discussing it as classifying it as an occupational decease or not… Are we really in the same level as aliens?

            I’m a very scientific person, I’m an engineer. In my field, security and precautions is the basic approach. Sure, when building the first jet, probably they didn’t know that risk, and that is understandable… But today, there are serious doubts about the fact that aircrafts are fully safe in that regard.

            So now, you are telling me that you believe that it is an opinion and not facts… And that’s exactly where I disagree…
            So let’s go with facts…
            – Why do aircraft do emergency landings when there are toxic fumes events? Flight attendants felt nauseous. Again not scientific enough.
            Flight NK517, 28 of January 2018… After an abnormal smell onboard, the air becomes “unbreathable”. Ok not very factual yet. However, the captain went to flight level 10’000 ft and depressurized the cabin, and the air quality quickly improved.
            Why all the crew went to the hospital if this didn’t happen and this wasn’t dangerous? Why did they have abnormal CO levels, close to “near lethal values”?
            – Why do aircrafts go through extensive checking, changing some parts and so on after such an event if it isn’t dangerous?
            – Based on empirical “approach” regarding the health, what is not good for the body once is most likely worse if you face it several times. And if the reaction is collapsing, or not being fit to land, there is something that affects the brain obviously.
            Asbestos wasn’t dangerous for a long time according to “science”… And by science, it’s lobbyist paying scientists to go in their sense… Sugar, cigarettes are also in the same category.
            May I ask a question, are you American?
            Because American have this very high value of “freedom”… Freedom should be above everything. The freedom of entrepreneurship makes some people want as few regulations as possible. Some want to get rid of the FDA because of that entrepreneurship freedom.
            I’m sorry but I don’t understand that. The limit of your freedom is when your behavior or whatever coming from you becomes dangerous for others. FDA is preventing that. Would you feel ok to be the first one trying a medication, before any kind of testing ?

            Here, hard facts: Carbon Monoxide is lethal (suicide methods as well). There are neurotoxins in the oil of the engines. There are traces of those chemicals in almost every single aircraft.
            Both are dangerous, and we don’t know how the body can be affected by life long regular exposure to it.
            But we know that short term, there are consequences that are dangerous for the crew, the pilots and the passenger.
            Other fact, Aesa reviewed literature. There is enough for the suspicion to be very conservative in the future and change the design…
            Next time, let’s take the air for your car engine right before the combustion chamber, and let’s seal your car and let’s see if you feel comfortable or if you’d prefer an alternative that would ensure that such event can’t happen…..

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