Aerotoxic Syndrome is the term given to the illness caused by exposure to contaminated air in jet aircraft. The term was introduced on 20 October 1999 by Dr Harry Hoffman, Professor Chris Winder and Jean Christophe Balouet, Ph.D. in their report, Aerotoxic Syndrome: Adverse health effects following exposure to jet oil mist during commercial flights.
Abstract : Materials used in the operation of aircraft may contain hazardous ingredients, some with significant toxicities, and need care in handling and use. Some maintenance or operational activities, such as leaks or poorly controlled maintenance procedures, can, through contamination of aircraft cabin air, produce unwanted exposures to personnel and passengers. Occasionally, such exposures (either short term intense or long term low level) may be of a magnitude to induce symptoms of toxicity. The symptoms reported by exposed individuals are sufficiently consistent to indicate the possibility of a discrete occupational health condition, termed aerotoxic syndrome. Features of this syndrome are that it is associated with air crew exposure at altitude to atmospheric contaminants from engine oil or other aircraft fluids, chronologically juxtaposed by the development of a consistent symptomology of irritancy, sensitivity and neurotoxicity. This syndrome may be reversible following brief exposures, but features are emerging of a chronic syndrome following moderate to substantial exposures.
A few years later the authors published this peer-reviewed study: Aerotoxic Syndrome: a descriptive epidemiological survey of aircrew exposed to in-cabin airborne contaminants
What are the symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome?
Symptoms may be acute, i.e. for a short time or chronic, i.e. long-lasting. Any combination of the following may be experienced:
- Fatigue – feeling exhausted, even after sleep
- Blurred or tunnel vision
- Shaking and tremors
- Loss of balance and vertigo
- Loss of consciousness
- Memory impairment
- Light-headedness, dizziness
- Confusion / cognitive problems
- Feeling intoxicated
- Breathing difficulties (shortness of breath)
- Tightness in chest
- Respiratory failure requiring oxygen
- Increased heart rate and palpitations
- Irritation of eyes, nose and upper airways
— which is why the term ‘syndrome’ is used. Many general medical practitioners are unaware of Aerotoxic Syndrome and may diagnose sufferers with illnesses such as psychological or psychosomatic disorders (i.e., they’ll tell you “it’s all in your mind”), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), “mysterious” viral infections, sleep disorders, depression, stress or anxiety – or simply “jet lag”, which is caused by crossing time zones.
Although some of these disorders may form part of Aerotoxic Syndrome, such part-diagnoses on their own miss the root cause of the problem, which is exposure to toxic oil components in a confined space. Furthermore, any misdiagnosis is likely to lead to inappropriate treatments, which may make the condition even worse.
Aviation medicine specialists are aware of the problem but Aerotoxic Syndrome does not seem to have gained official acceptance among the majority of them. Hence, despite (or because of) their expert knowledge they are likely to seek other explanations – and there are plenty of neurological symptoms associated with aviation that have nothing to do with inhaling oil.
- Article by Jeremy J. Ramsden: Is there such a thing as aerotoxic syndrome? JBPC 14/2014