Health Effects from Contaminated Bleed Air System

Contaminated Bleed Air System Fills Cabin with Toxic Engine Fumes, Flight Attendant Suffers Serious Side Effects

August 26, 2009 — On April 11, 2007, flight attendant Terry Williams, a 17-year veteran of the skies, was working first-class aboard a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 en route from Memphis to Dallas. During the flight, she experienced difficulty breathing, severe coughing, and watering eyes. At one point on the flight, she observed smoke in the passenger cabin. Over the next six days, Ms. Williams stayed home, her symptoms continuing to worsen. On April 19, 2007, she reported to work in San Francisco, but was unable to control her coughing and could not perform her duties as a flight attendant.

The smoke that Ms. Williams saw came from burnt engine oil or hydraulic fluid, which itself is not highly toxic. What she didn’t see, or smell, but did inhale, was a cloud of toxic organophosphates known as TCPs–a common ingredient in engine oil and hydraulic fluids. Organophosphates are toxic chemicals, developed in Germany in the 1930s, and were once commonly used in pesticides and insecticides but have been banned in most states.

Bleed Air System Responsible for Passenger Air Contamination

Most commercial passenger aircraft utilize a cabin ventilation system fed by compressed air from the engines. The air is drawn in through the dry (compressor) side of the engine, compressed, then cooled, and routed into the passenger compartment. These relatively inexpensive ventilation systems literally “bleed” air from the engines. Turbine jet engines also have a “wet” side that comes in contact with engine oil and hydraulic fluids. While the dry side of the engine is intended to remain dry, through normal operation it can be contaminated with oil or hydraulic fluid. As the fluid becomes superheated, the fumes are drawn into the ventilation system and pumped into the cabin and flight deck compartments.

Passenger Aircraft Fail to Take Precautions to Prevent Toxic Bleed Air Events

No civilian commercial aircraft utilizing a bleed air ventilation system is currently equipped with any filtration, sensors, or warning system to alert crews to contaminants in the air of the cabin or flight deck. Inhalation of toxic bleed air is so harmful that bleed air has been referred to as “the asbestos of the skies.” Passengers and crew members exposed to toxins through a fume event may experience dizziness, fatigue, respiratory diseases, bronchial spasms, and neurological impairments in cognitive functioning, headaches, speech impairments, large black spots in their vision, and peripheral neuropathies, including uncontrolled tremors. It is as yet unknown why some individuals react more strongly to exposure to bleed air than others, but a geneticist at the University of Washington, Dr. Clem Furlong, is in the process of developing a blood test that will be able to determine whether individuals have been exposed to contaminated bleed air.

Worse yet, the toxic bleed air event experienced by Ms. Williams on the MD-82 is not an isolated event. A British government committee studying bleed air estimated that toxic fume events occur on 0.05-1% of flights. This data suggests that between 14 and 279 flights per day in the United States experience a fume event. A published study by the Association of Flight Attendants’ lead safety officer, Judith Murawski, CIH, conservatively estimated that a bleed air fume event occurred approximately six times per week in the United States over the past four years.

McDonnell Douglas and Boeing Aware of Bleed Air Contamination for Decades

Ms. Williams, unable to work since the incident, has experienced numerous physical ailments as a complication of her TCP exposure. She filed suit against McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, the manufacturers of the MD-82 aircraft, in Washington state court on April 9, 2009. The suit alleges that McDonnell Douglas and Boeing designed, manufactured, and sold an aircraft that is defective under Washington law in the design of its environmental control system, bleed air system, air delivery system, filtration system, and ventilation system.

The defendants filed an answer on August 11, 2009. The answer generally denied any product defect but admitted that the industry has, “for decades,” been aware of “bleed air contamination” and that TCP is a toxic substance.

One of the central issues in the case–an industry-known defect that may cause public harm being left unaddressed for years in order to enhance profit-margins–has drawn the interest of Public Justice. Public Justice, a public interest law firm whose core mission is to hold corporations liable for their misconduct, will be actively involved in many of the legal aspects of the case as well as handling arguments by the defendants that federal law preempts state design defect claims.

Alan Brayton, a long-time member of Public Justice and the founding partner of Brayton Purcell, is currently evaluating California bleed air contamination cases. If you have been exposed to contaminated air during an airline flight and suffered injuries from your exposure, please contact us to discuss the specifics of your potential case.