The Asbestos Of The Skies
January 7, 2008 6:54 PM   Subscribe

It smells like dirty socks, wet dog, oil, chemicals, gymnasiums, burning, vomit, and more. It induces blurred vision, disorientation, shaking and tremors, vertigo, seizures, loss of consciousness, respiratory failure, depression, sleep disorders, salivation, nausea and diarrhoea among other symptoms. Is "toxic airline syndrome" the new Gulf War Syndrome?

A pressure group seems sure that a "design flaw in modern aircraft" brings fumes direct from the engine into the cabins which include organophospate neurotoxins, including tricresyl phosphate (TCP). There's been a Senate Inquiry in Australia. There's a documentary, with an unintentionally hilarious theme song. There's a book, and an array of different websites, most of which seem to be funded by one pilot's early retirement payout. One aircraft in particular, the BAe-146, has definitely been reported to have this fault by credible media organisations but the "toxic airlines" people insist it's a much bigger problem. They've got the story the airlines don't want you to hear, and they'll even sell you a detector so you can see for yourself. According to them it's a massive industry cover-up; the Asbestos Of The Skies.
posted by AmbroseChapel (35 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Obviously, it's the residue from the chemtrails all the airplanes are spraying into the atmosphere. Duh.
posted by yhbc at 7:01 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ahh, we are due for a new Gulf War Syndrome. . . .
posted by grobstein at 7:05 PM on January 7, 2008

I am positive that some fumes from the engines get sucked into the cabin; I can smell it. But I've only smelled it while sitting stationary or backing up. I bet this is a load and only a big concern if you're a pilot or a waitress in the sky, as Paul Westerberg put it. Planes go pretty fast to be sucking in their own fumes.

You know what's worse than the smell of dirty socks, wet dog, oil, chemicals, gymnasiums, burning, vomit, and more? The smell of mouse turds being baked in an oven some friends and I regretfully turned on in a disused trailer home. I WILL NEVER FORGET. and IT CHANGED EVERYTHING.
posted by Camofrog at 7:13 PM on January 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've never smelled anything like this on an airplane, but I've never been able to smell anything at all on an airplane other than the enormous unwashed person invariably seated next to me.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:16 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I thought you were going to talk about poppers.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:18 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've never smelled anything like this on an airplane, but I've never been able to smell anything at all on an airplane other than the enormous unwashed person invariably seated next to me.

Vick's or Burt's Bees under the nose, friend. If that isn't enough, just cover your mouth and nose with a cloth.

Sure, you'll make them feel bad, but they're making you feel bad, and they could've taken a shower, worn a clean shirt, and brushed their teeth if everyone feeling good was really all that important to them.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 7:21 PM on January 7, 2008

Maybe I haven't flown enough but I still sorta feel sitting in an aluminum tube at 35,000 feet, going 500MPH, flying across a continent in a matter of hours is worth a few minor annoyances such as squeezing into a seat, taking my shoes off for TSA, or smelling the occasional fart.
posted by bondcliff at 7:25 PM on January 7, 2008

Iraq War Syndrome will be the new Gulf War Syndrome, I'm afraid.
posted by mek at 7:29 PM on January 7, 2008

I honestly don't know if they're mad or not, for the record, but (obviously) I've been following the story for some time.

For a start, can anyone think of a more Occam's-razor-y reason why you'd smell socks, B.O. or vomit on an plane? And when a syndrome has about fifty different ill-defined symptoms, can it even be discussed as a syndrome?

I have a relative in the aerospace industry who said it sounded like nonsense, but more to the point that they'd never heard of it.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:30 PM on January 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

When you board an aircraft is there any smell or sign of the air being contaminated? Various terms used by crew and passengers worldwide to describe the smell (when present) include: ... Burning ...

I know when I board an aircraft and I smell *burning*, my first and foremost concern is possible airborne contaminants. Forget about in-flight fires or plummeting to earth in a big luminous conflagration.
posted by CKmtl at 7:32 PM on January 7, 2008

After many conversations with my coworkers when I worked at the airport, and now with my pilot friends, I have come to the conclusion that I am the only person in the world that thinks jet fuel smells like maple syrup.

Seriously, it smells almost good enough to eat. But you really don't want to do that. Even getting it on your skin burns like hell.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:33 PM on January 7, 2008

Heh. Great and very well constructed post.

I remember working as a high school teacher in the late nineties, the school janitor claimed that Gulf War Syndrome was caused by Diet Coke that had been left out in the scorching desert sun. The heat had transformed the Nutrasweet or whatever into some toxic neurochemical that damaged the nervous systems of the poor troops who drank it.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:59 PM on January 7, 2008

There's definitely *a* smell to flying, but it's quite hard to describe. I think of it as a subtle mix of aircraft plastics, humidity and sweat.
posted by clevershark at 8:13 PM on January 7, 2008

did anyone consider that the plane smells like vomit, because, I don't know...

people are vomiting in it???
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:37 PM on January 7, 2008

See, I wouldn't be worried about fumes getting into an airplane, that'd mean that the airplane didn't have a sealed and endlessly recirculated atmosphere. What I worry about with airplanes is that we're taking an essentially random cross section of the human population, stuffing them in close quarters where they're all breathing the same air, then flying them to another part of the country or world. I always thought it'd be hard to engineer a better system for spreading airborne diseases.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:14 PM on January 7, 2008

I've heard of airline employees complaining about ozone exposure and radiation exposure, but never engine fluid toxins.

I think the biggest problem to worry about is Deep Vein Thrombosis.
posted by eye of newt at 9:16 PM on January 7, 2008

I always thought it'd be hard to engineer a better system for spreading airborne diseases.

Homeland Security at your door in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
posted by Camofrog at 9:27 PM on January 7, 2008

Look at that list of symptoms. My god. You can't help but get the syndrome if you so much as sneeze on an airplane. It's a shame they don't list irritability as a symptom, or I could be a goddamn millionaire.
posted by boo_radley at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2008

Some airline's planes smell better than others. Some planes do smell a bit funky. Seems legit.

Other sites that reference this like The Aerotoxic Association. There's music to the issue too, for the documentary, Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines.
posted by nickyskye at 10:06 PM on January 7, 2008

I'm with Camofrog on this one. I smell jet fuel fumes every time I fly. The smell is hard for me to describe (all smells are hard for me to describe), and it's strong enough to cause me to shudder involuntarily. It took me years to figure out what the smell was. While I'm not 100% positive that it's jet fuel, I'm fairly certain that it's some smell you get out on the runway because it starts as soon as I approach the walkway to the jet and usually fades away by the time the jet has taken off.

I have no idea whether or not there's anything toxic in those fumes, but they always make me feel ill. When the fumes seem particularly strong, I get even more airsick on take-off than I would be otherwise. If there's a way to cut down on those fumes, I would love to see it implemented, regardless of potential health risks. It'd just make me feel better.

Hmm, maybe I should wear a surgical mask the next time I board a plane.
posted by ErWenn at 10:48 PM on January 7, 2008

Oh, nickyskye, well done finding that Susan Michaelis site. But she's not an independent source, she's part of the cabal, quoted in some of the links in the original post, and the site was put together by the same people and features the same quotes. Oh and I mentioned the song too.

They really have created quite a number of different websites all about the same thing, haven't they? Not that I think they're holdenising or anything.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:40 AM on January 8, 2008

Certainly planes pick up jet exhaust when parked. I smell it, probably most folks do, if they pay any attention. It isn't unlike what you get on a bus. The whole syndrome thing? I doubt it.

More serious, IMO, the practice of exhausting buses out the lower right, and parking buses awaiting passengers, front to back. The exhaust leaves the front bus and flows into the open door of the one parked behind. And then, one time I happened to run my hand down the crack between the back and seat in the back row of a city bus. Oops! Bad mistake. My hand came out covered in soot! But wait, why should soot be inside the bus?

Of course, at least in America, no one is going to make a giant fuss about exhaust on buses. After all, that only affects those other people, the ones too poor to own a car, right? But all us good people fly, so we better worry about that one, instead. And tough shit for the folks who walk along the car-lined streets, breathing the exhaust of the cars, trucks, and buses. They should get cars, too.
posted by Goofyy at 3:41 AM on January 8, 2008

ErWenn, a surgical mask is useless as protection from chemical fumes.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:35 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the tip, Kirth. I wasn't sure about it. In any case, I'm not worried about protecting myself in the sense of eliminating the potential poisonous effects of the fumes so much as just reducing the smell. But if the mask won't stop the fumes, it probably won't slow down the smell much either.

Maybe I should just wrap a towel around my head, a la Ford Prefect. That'd probably get me tackled by a TSA agent or my fellow passengers as a terrorist.
posted by ErWenn at 6:33 AM on January 8, 2008

I'm VERY skeptical about the claims of "smelling jet fuel" while in an aircraft. Before the great smoking hysteria started you could light up on planes as soon as the seatbelts sign was switched off. Heck, if you're flying within China these days smoking is nominally forbidden, but you'll smell people smoking as soon as the plane hits cruising altitude.
posted by clevershark at 6:40 AM on January 8, 2008

Besides, you smell that same smell when flying in a turboprop.
posted by clevershark at 6:41 AM on January 8, 2008

It's the smell of fear.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:57 AM on January 8, 2008

Smells like...victory.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:28 AM on January 8, 2008

Considering that the air in your home is 7-8 times more toxic than the air outside, it seems that anytime you enclose a space that includes toxic materials (flame-retardant cushions?), the air will become toxic. I don't know if planes are any worse than submarines, etc, but I don't think it's silly to be concerned about the toxicity of the air.

It does seem possible (and obvious) to test the air quality, however. Have there been extensive tests on airplane air? I didn't see any hard data in the articles (but I didn't read them all).
posted by mrgrimm at 8:11 AM on January 8, 2008

A study of 14 scheduled flights from GB to Europe found:
* Cabin pressure - the average cabin altitude in cruise never exceeded the regulatory ceiling of 8000 ft. For periods during climb and descent, the rates of altitude increase and decrease did exceed the recommended values;
* Air and globe temperature - mean values usually below 26°C;
* Relative humidity - during cruise, mean RH within the BAe146 was 12.7%, and 20.0% for the B737;
* Air speed - at head height were typically below 0.2 m.s-1
* Carbon monoxide - all values were of a similar level or less than those found in studies of air quality in homes in England. Mean levels somewhat higher on the ground than during cruise.
* Carbon dioxide - mean levels were typically between 700 and 2000 ppm during cruise, and did not exceed regulatory requirements;
* Nitrogen dioxide - all levels were below the WHO recommendations, as well as below those values found within a sample of kitchens in gas cooking homes in England. Levels of nitrogen dioxide were higher whilst on the ground than during cruise.
* Volatile organic compounds - all measured values are well within the available guidance on air quality for internal environments. Typically, the highest concentrations were found while the aircraft were on the ground.
* Carbonyls (e.g. formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and acrolein) - low levels of all compounds, and well below World Health Organisation (WHO) limits, and HSE guidelines;
* Semi volatile organic compounds - For the BAe 146, analysis focused on testing for Exxon 2380 (used for engine and APU oil) and Skydrol (used for hydraulic oil). For the Boeing 737 flights, analysis focused on Aeroshell Turbine oil 560 (used for engine oil) and Skydrol. Very low (if any) indication of these oils present in the cabin environment of those monitored flights.
* Bacteria and fungi - higher levels whilst the aircraft is on the ground than during cruise;
* Surface dust, dust mite allergens and cat allergens - very low levels found on board;
* Ultrafine particles - elevated levels were always found during the ground phases - levels in cruise are several orders of magnitude lower.

Overall, levels of measured air pollutants on board the scheduled 14 flights were always below any recommended health limits. Although it is not possible at this stage to make detailed comparisons with the newer types of aircraft monitored within the CabinAir project, the results from this study indicate that the levels of parameters measured in this project are broadly in line with the CabinAir measurements. Therefore, we currently see no obvious difference in the cabin environment between these older types of aircraft and the newer types.
It seems that there was supposed to be a comprehensive study in the U.S., but I can't find any results of such a study. Anyone?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:56 AM on January 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

But does it taste like a 9V battery?
posted by ooga_booga at 11:55 AM on January 8, 2008

If the fumes in question are brought into the plane during boarding and disembarking, then there wouldn't be any fire hazard smoking at cruising altitude once they've had a chance to dissipate. But people are still inhaling those fumes before take-off.

Thanks for the stats; they're very insightful. As many of us have smelled, there seems to be a notable difference when the plane is on the ground. I'm glad to hear that tests have been performed to make sure we (and more importantly, the airline staff) are not being poisoned to death.

Still, it'd be nice if they could do something about the smell.
posted by ErWenn at 12:33 PM on January 8, 2008

Airplane air is disgusting, but I don't need or want a lobbying group to deal with it. I just need a hot shower at my destination.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 12:41 PM on January 8, 2008

I feel I should point out that, yes, fuel particles and exhaust may be in the air, but that's no different to walking a city street or filling up your car.

These people are claiming that, because of the specialised lubricants and the temperatures involved, a chemical roughly the equivalent of Sarin gas is being released into planes.

A chemical which, I now discover through the magic of Wikipedia, was once introduced into "Jack" or Jamaican ginger essence during Prohibition to get around regulation of foodstuffs containing alcohol. This led to mass poisonings and the coining of the term "Jack Leg" for the unusual gait of those affected.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:03 PM on January 8, 2008

Oops. That's "Jake", not "Jack".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:08 PM on January 8, 2008

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