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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Victory for an Aircrew for Breathing Contaminated Aircraft Air

A major global legal precedent has been established with an Australian flight attendant winning damages for injury from exposure to aircraft air contaminated by oil fumes and smoke.

The problem of aircraft cabin air becoming contaminated by synthetic jet engine oils containing organophosphates (such as Tricresyl Phosphate, TCP) and a wide range of chemicals has been ongoing sin

The aviation industry has known about the potential for exposure to oil fumes in the cabin and flight deck during normal commercial flights for more than 50 years. Instead of mandating air contaminant filters and monitors, the industry denies the problem and allows aircrew and passengers to breathe oil fumes that contaminate the aircraft air supply since the 1950s.

On  September 3, 2010 a former Australian flight attendant became the first person in the world to win a civil case resulting from breathing oil smoke and fumes in the aircraft cabin on a BAe 146 in Australia in 1992.

The legal precedent Joanne Turner v. Eastwest Airlines was made in the High Court of Australia. Ms Turner a former flight attendant with Australia’s Ansett and Eastwest Airlines, was exposed to smoke and fumes resulting from a failed oil seal on a BAe 146 flight between Sydney and Brisbane on 4 March 1992, while 5 months pregnant.

The court found that Ms Turner was exposed to oil fumes and smoke generated from engine oil that had leaked into a component of the aircraft air supply system called the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU -engine).

The failure of the APU oil seal was found to be foreseeable, as was the risk that smoke from the leaking oil would enter the aircraft cabin.

Cabin smells from oil were noted to be an ongoing problem acknowledged by the defendant, with numerous complaints about the cabin air prior to the incident on 4 March 1992, including an entry 10 days prior to the incident stating: ‘APU AIR NOT FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION.’

Ms Turner was found to have been exposed to Mobil Jet Oil II on 4 March 1992 with the court finding that ‘pyrolysed effects of Mobil Jet Oil II are harmful to the lungs.’ As such Ms Turner suffered from a pathological condition to the lungs caused by exposure to the smoke and that condition has continued for more than eighteen years and is expected to be life-long. As such Ms Turner was awarded $138,757 Australian dollars.

The defendant appealed the decision to the New South Wales Court of Appeal and then the High Court of Australia, however subsequently lost both appeals on 1 April 2010 and 3 September 2010 respectively.

It is well documented that synthetic jet engine oil leaks into aircraft cabin air (as a feature of using air supplied through the engines) and that such exposures are a flight safety and health concern, for both aircrew and passengers. Contaminated air exposures are now known to be a normal regular occurrence, an expected occurrence and regrettably an accepted occurrence within the aviation industry.

This court verdict supports the long held Global Cabinet Air Quality Executive (GCAQE) view that industry actions currently being undertaken to address the issue of exposure to aircraft bleed air are inadequate. The court verdict clearly demonstrates that the call by the industry for further research to determine what chemicals are present when engine oil leaks and how often this occurs is unwarranted. There is already enough evidence available to satisfy the duty of care requirements.

The benchmark has now been set supporting that exposure to oil leaking into the aircraft air supply is harmful to people, both aircrew and passengers.

The supply air for the cabin and flight deck is taken from either the engine or APU and is not filtered for engine oil fumes before people breathe it. Commercial aircraft are not equipped with detection equipment to alert the crew that the air is contaminated, creating an unacceptable flight safety and public health issue. The aviation industry inaction ignores the fact that aircrew and passengers are owed a duty of care and there is, without doubt, enough evidence to apply the precautionary principle and prevent oil contaminating the air supply with proactive maintenance and bleed air cleaners and monitors.

The GCAQE calls for all future aircraft to be designed using bleed free technology such as that used by the Boeing 787, for all current aircraft to be fitted with suitable filters and detection systems, and for airlines to service their fleets with less toxic oils. This court verdict supports that 60 years of unfiltered bleed air is no longer acceptable.
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For over 3 decades the Law Offices of Jon L. Gelman 1.973.696.7900
 jon@gelmans.com have been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational illnesses. Author NJ Workers Compensation Law (West).