For the first time, a Belgian scientist has started in-depth research into the effects of not only toxic fumes but also chronic exposure to a low dose of toxins in aircraft.
Research psychologist Daniel Dumalin is studying whether the toxic substances that are released during incidents with air supply (fume events) have an influence on crew members. And the first results are worrying.
For years now, there have been discussions in the aviation industry about the health risks that are associated with these fume events. During such an incident, toxic air from the engines ends up in the cabin and the cockpit via the aircraft’s air conditioning system. Sometimes this is accompanied by intense smoke, but in most of the cases, there is only a pungent smell in the cabin (smelly socks).
There are numerous stories of pilots who – during such a fume event – become unwell behind the controls and of cabin crew who faint. Some also have persistent complaints afterwards: bursting headaches, extreme tiredness and concentration problems. In some cases, people will start to shake or feel numbness in certain body parts. In the aviation industry, this is referred to as Aerotoxic Syndrome. The syndrome will not only occur after a fume event but also with chronic exposure to low doses of toxic substance in the air. Not a single airline, however, recognises the syndrome as an occupational disease. As a result, pilots or flight attendants will not be financially compensated if they have to stop flying because of their health problems.
“I want to fight for all those people,” says research psychologist Daniel Dumalin working in Ostend, Belgium. He compares the problems in the aviation sector with those in the asbestos or tobacco industry in the 60s and 70s. “Here too, attempts have been made to minimise the health risks. It is only when the scientific evidence became so overwhelming that the industry changed its attitude“. Dumalin conceived a plan to subject (former) cabin crew and (former) pilots who experience complaints to an extensive brain examination. He is, therefore, the first in Belgium to conduct research into Aerotoxic Syndrome. “I perform a QEEG scan on everyone(measuring and mapping brain wave activities, ed.) and compare their results with those of healthy people. If a test subject already had an MRI or PET scan, I will include those results to be able to make a more in-depth analysis.”
The Aerotoxic Syndrome was almost always limited to neuropsychological evaluation, blood analyses or autopsies. Dumalin, therefore, hopes to add an extra dimension to the existing scientific studies. Although he has only just started, he already found a disturbing pattern in the first results. “I have already examined seven people and I notice at least the same type of brain damage in all seven. It relates to damage in the areas that control cognitive processes. For example, this causes concentration problems, memory problems or hypersensitivity to stimuli. Even more striking is that the damage to people who have not flown for more than 10 years is just as obvious as to people who recently flew.”
According to Dumalin, that damage shows remarkably many similarities with brain damage that can be associated with exposure to organophosphates. And let that be just one of the toxic substances that, according to previous research, are released during a fume event in an aeroplane. “It is of course too early to draw conclusions, but the first results are remarkable.” In the coming weeks, Dumalin will submit four more people to the same examination, but in total, he hopes to find at least fifty test subjects. More are welcome.
“From then on the conclusions would be pretty strong. Moreover, it is easy to repeat the same research in other countries afterwards. That is the major advantage of such a QEEG test: it is much cheaper than an investigation via MRIs, for example. In this way, we could reach a large number of test subjects relatively easily and cheaply worldwide within a few years. That would only make the evidence stronger.”
The research psychologist believes it is crucial that science takes Aerotoxic Syndrome seriously. “If you hear that pilots sometimes get so unwell during a fume event that they can barely keep control of the aircraft, then it is very important that we find out what could be the matter. Not to mention the possible negative impact on the health of people who often travel by plane (frequent flyers). It is our duty to investigate this thoroughly.”