Fumes Onboard – Practicle Advice for FA’s

Fumes onboard?

Overview and practical advice for AFA-CWA members  

Have you read the recent high-profile media reports about crews getting sick from breathing toxic fumes (unpleasant, unexplained odors) inflight? AFA-CWA has long been a leader among unions in working to address this complex and difficult problem of fumes onboard, which the industry has tried to keep quiet since the 1950s. Our research confirms that the most serious types of fume events (involving exposure to engine oil or hydraulic fluid fumes) happen on a daily basis on US airlines alone. Clearly, not all types of onboard fumes make crews sick- some are just unpleasant. But it’s important to be able to recognize the difference, so read on…

With the exception of the B787, the cabin and flight deck are supplied with ventilation air that is first compressed in the aircraft engines or the APU (a small engine in the tail). Engines are known to leak oil, sometimes, and aviation oils contain some extremely toxic chemicals, such as TCPs which are known to be toxic to the brain.  Also, carbon monoxide gas can be generated when the oils are heated in the engines, which can give you a nasty headache and make you feel woozy, or even pass out. Despite these facts, aircraft systems aren’t equipped with suitable filters, so when oil leaks or spills, you breathe the toxic fumes in the cabin.

For decades, crews have reported symptoms consistent with breathing oil fumes during and after flights with confirmed exposure to oil fumes; symptoms that they didn’t report before the exposure. Manufacturers and airlines know all about this problem. They know that oil fumes often smell pungent – like dirty socks or a wet dog – while hydraulic fluid fumes often smell acrid. They know what’s in the fumes. And they know about the many illness reports. Still, the industry – including the FAA – continues to deny that these fumes are anything they need to address. A 2015 FAA report included bogus claims about oil fume events being “extremely rare” and the TCPs in the fumes not being very toxic. Airlines and their workers’ comp carriers routinely try to discredit and harass crews who get legitimately and seriously sick.

Calling AFA members! Remember to review the AFA-wide practical advice for onboard fumes on this page: http://ashsd.afacwa.org/docs/practical.htm.  Print these documents and carry them with you.

AFA-CWA is fighting for your rights. The solutions are obvious: we need suitable filters to prevent exposure to oil fumes. We need chemical sensors to give early warning of contamination to pilots and enable prompt troubleshooting by maintenance staff. We need education and training to ensure that flight attendants, pilots, and maintenance workers know how to recognize and respond to fumes coming from the vents, and to distinguish fumes that matter from fumes that likely don’t. Know your workplace, ask questions, report fumes, and visit the AFA-CWA webpage, posted above. More questions? Contact AFA’s Judith Anderson at judith@afanet.org or 206-932-6237.