At least one researcher is convinced that aircraft engine “bleed air” used to pressurize the cabin and maintain various systems in flight is highly toxic and may be responsible for the death of a British Airways pilot in 2012. Senior first officer Richard Westgate passed away in December 2012 after flying commercially for 16 years. His illness was a drawn out one, with symptoms such as numbness and memory loss but more than a dozen doctors failed to come up with a solid hypothesis on the cause or a course of treatment. Enter Professor Mohamed Abou-Donia, a leading authority on organophosphate poisoning based at Duke University.
Professor Abou-Donia is completely convinced that, based on specialized tests he’s run and also on review of autopsy results and brain scans, the atomization of oil from the engine leaking in to the bleed air and circulating in the cabin contributed to the illness and eventual death. In a research report released this week Abou-Donia suggests that the makeup of these lubricants causes the illnesses and deaths.
Brain and spinal tissues exhibited axonal degeneration and demyelination. Peripheral nerves showed Tlymphocyte infiltration and demyelination. T-lymphocytes had infiltrated the heart muscle tissue…. Damage to the nervous system was consistent with organophosphate-induced neurotoxicity (OPIN). The results also showed that exposure to organophosphates rendered the nervous system and heart tissue sensitive and predisposed to further injury.
And if that isn’t scary enough the researchers go on to remind us of all the chemicals which are near the bleed air supply during a flight:
The engine lubricating oil contains tri-cresyl-phosphate (TCP). The oil also contains n-phenyl-1-naphthylamine, alkylated diphenyl amines and phenol dimethyl-phosphate. The air is also contaminated by hydraulic fluid, which contains tributyl phosphate (TBP), dibutyl phenyl phosphate (DPP), or butyl diphenyl phosphate (BDP). These are all toxic and some are neurotoxic.
So, why aren’t more people suffering from these symptoms? One reasoning offered up is that the susceptibility to the effects is significantly affected by genetic variability. In other words, some people are more likely to feel the impact than others. That reads to me a bit like an allergies issue, though this version can develop over a long term aggregate exposure rather than only in an acute incident.
It would seem, based on this knowledge, that the Professor would have some means to describe which specific genetic markers/indicators are responsible for the increased impact of the aerosolized chemicals but that part is missing, at least from the version I’ve seen online. Or maybe they just know that some are likely to react worse but they haven’t figured out how to test for that yet.
The whole thing is a bit spooky, to be sure. But I’m not going to change my flying habits based on this one.
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