I thought that I was developing Alzheimer's, I even bought a book on it called Saving Your Brain. A poor memory, word finding difficulties and periods of mild confusion all pointed to it and my wife and I started to make plans for the future.
I had had persistent respiratory infections and was developing chronic fatigue but thought that this was due to a poor recovery due to age from an operation to remove a tumour in my maxillary sinus. I had an unexplained illness with extreme debilitation immediately after a night's flying and was bedridden for several days in my hotel room, and shortly after had pneumonia twice.
Is this what getting old was all about? What’s happened to that zest for life I had? I developed double vision resulting in a referral to a neurologist who also discovered that I had no sensitivity to heat below the knees and noted also my tingling fingers.
Digestive problems and an ultrasound scan subsequently revealed a duodenal ulcer and suspicious tumours in the liver.
To cap it all I had a coughing fit immediately after a nights flying resulting a central vision loss in the right eye and lost my licence again, and so a ground job whilst I regained my full sight.
What’s going on? Am I falling apart? And why should a previously active man, who played tennis regularly, plays guitar and entertains; start to deteriorate in health and performance (I came clean with the company about falling asleep on an approach and requested part time working).
Was it the persistent night flying or just stress? I seemed in good health before I joined the company having flown B767 worldwide, B757 long haul, B737 short haul, IT, MD83’s, DC9’s, Viscounts – you name it and I’ve done it and quite unscathed.
I was getting old I told myself, I had to admit that I couldn’t hack it any more, it’s time to pack it in. But I will give it one more go and after three months when my sight was restored I was again back flying, but within 24 hours I was coughing and spluttering all over the place. It was too coincidental and so I visited the company doctor posing the question “is there any way we can take air samples and perhaps examine the dust extracted from the seats, perhaps my problem is just the dust mite”.
“You have chronic rhinitis and these aircraft are cleaned to industrial standards, go and see your GP”, was his reply. As you can imagine I was not happy with this and so I called the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) explaining my problem. The BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association) Chairman of the Aircraft Air Quality Committee who sent me a host of information subsequently contacted me:
Aerotoxic Syndrome? What’s that, fumes in the cockpit, what fumes, what smell?
I studied the massive paperwork, reports and medical evidence and presented them to my GO/MAE who referred me to a clinic specialised in toxicity, and I was also invited to take part in a university study to examine Cognitive Function in 27 pilots.
The results of the exhaustive testing were devastating. Vast amounts of heavy metals, including lead, mercury plus antimony, arsenic, cadmium, tin, tungsten and nickel and traces of lindane and nitrosamine (carcinogenic) were foundo in my blood.
Four and a half times more than the average of dichlorobenzene and traces of organophosphates were detected in my fat cells. Serum tests revealed that I had acute brain damage and deterioration of the nerve fibres in the extremities consistent with chemical induced nervous injury.
The examining doctor said that I appeared to be suffering from organophosphate-induced neurotoxicity, white cell dysfunction consistent with chronic fatigue syndrome and hypersensitivity problems associated with poor immune system.
The cognitive testing showed “under-functioning on tests associated with psychomotor speed, executive function and attention”
So I wasn’t imagining it all.
I was manifesting nearly all the symptoms of what is now called The Aerotoxic Syndrome caused by contaminated air. So what can I do? The investigating hospital prescribed treatment costing £12,000, which the company medical scheme would not pay for.
My decision was made for me.
I had a real fume event with all that that entailed and coupled with the evidence I decided not to fly these aircraft anymore or to be in an environment that was, on the evidence I had, doing me harm. As part of my own initial investigation, after receiving the massive amount of information from BALPA, I did make my own tests on contamination in the cockpit and these are now documented with my solicitor who is currently pursuing a case of personal injury against my previous employer.
So, what now? Fortunately by a set of amazing coincidences I stumbled across a medical practitioner specialising in toxicity and he managed to remove all the heavy metals by a process called “Chelation Therapy” over a period of six months, but was unable to move the phosphates. The cognitive problems are permanent but the chronic fatigue syndrome is getting better and I am now enjoying my retirement in France, hoping to finish a musical I started some years ago and to complete my collection of children’s’ stories.
What fumes, what smell? I only had one event that was obvious, but it would appear that the consistent low levels of air contamination not detectable over a period of time have caused my problem.
But why me? Other pilots have been flying these aircraft and engines without problems. How come? We shall have to leave that to further investigation which will hopefully be set up following the conclusions of the committee on toxicity, and other governments investigations and rulings (if we are lucky).
What angers me most, but it is waning (probably due to a mixture of pure air and fine wines) is the fact that somebody must have known about these problems associated with the B757. But nobody told us of the risks or the history of these aircraft, which was well documented both on MORs (Mandatory Occurence Reports) and medical evidence from the crews, both pilots and cabin crew. Perhaps they thought Freight Dogs didn’t matter!
To protect pilots’ health the airlines need to immediately install some monitoring equipment which is checked on a regular basis on every aircraft that is using “bleed air” to feed the air conditioning units, similar to the monitoring that was done for radiation on Concorde pilots. Perhaps some day?
In the meantime I wish success to the Aerotoxic Association in its quest to educate on the air contamination problem and if any pilot who has had the same problems as myself wishes to organise his own treatment then contact me via the Association.
Regards to my fellow colleagues with whom I used to work – look after yourselves.