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Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Monday, 21 April 2008 10:29 UK

Something in the Air

Former pilot Neils Gomer tells how he became ill on a flight. Something in the Air, BBC One 8.30pm Monday 21 April.

A Panorama investigation has shown how air passengers could be exposed to toxic fumes in the cabin while flying.

Our investigators took swabs and air samples during two UK flights.

The air breathed on airliners is drawn in past the engines.

Professor Van Netten
This proves that oil from the engine gets into the air
Professor Christiaan Van Netten

It can become polluted by any leaks of engine oil.

'Fume events' are rare but there are no accurate figures of just how many occur each year.

Panorama's secret swabs and samples were analysed by toxicologist, Professor Christiaan Van Netten.

The samples were taken from a Boeing 757 and a British Aerospace 146.


Professor Van Netten found traces of a neurotoxin - tri-cresylphosphate (TCP) in all the samples.

A swab
On two domestic flights we used air samplers approved by the US government and took swabs from surfaces on three planes to find out what had been left behind from previous flights.

"This proves that oil from the engine gets into the air and this is what you have been breathing during this flight when you took your sample," he said.

"The pathway is there, that engine oil gets into the air and people are exposed to it."

Panorama's investigation follows a series of claims from pilots and passengers who say they've been made ill by toxic fumes.

The levels of the toxic chemicals found in Panorama's investigation were very low - well within international safety standards.

These levels are very low and well within current international safety limits
But they are still of concern to Professor Van Netten.

"The international standards are based on non aircraft situations.

"We have to be really careful not to jump to conclusions when you say well this is very low concentration.

"It's a low concentration but in combination with many other things.

"If there is a fume event you are exposed to much higher quantities of the tri-cresyl phosphates."

Safety limits

Samantha Sabatino
Samantha Sabatino and her family believe they were made ill by airline cabin fumes and are taking their case to court

Boeing told Panorama: "As you are making clear these levels are very low and well within current international safety limits."

BAE Systems said the sample was just one thousandth of the limit for long-term exposure prescribed in the UK health and safety standard.

Within the industry, fumes have long been recognised as a hazard.

BAE Systems began notifying operators about problems with contaminated air, and the possibility of crew incapacitation, eight years ago.

BAE says only a small proportion of fume events are due to oil leaks.

It adds that it has updated 70 per cent of oil seals and has no reports of fume events since fitting them. It says the quality of air on the 146 has been proved by independent studies to exceed all international standards.

Boeing told Panorama it's committed to providing a safe cabin environment. And that studies show contaminant levels are low and health and safety standards are met.

The Government is currently conducting its own studies of cabin air during 'fume events'.

Panorama: Something in the Air, BBC One 8.30pm Monday 21 April 2008.

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Panorama: Something in the Air



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