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This testimony is a translation of an article an article published in the German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 20 August 2010 and features an interview with former flight attendant Aida Infante who lost her health and career to toxins in aircraft cabins.
Aviation: Toxins in the cabin air?
“Will only fly with an oxygen tent”
Interview by: Katja Schnitzler
Former chief flight attendant Aida Infante, 42, is severely disabled. She has to live in a chemical-free environment, is unable to work, and can usually only leave the house with a breathing mask. She says her former dream job is to blame. She explains that there is a chemical cocktail of pesticides, burnt oil and other toxins that get inhaled in aircraft cabins. Today Aida Infante advises other people who have been affected and has been in the Frankfurt courts taking legal action against the Federal Insurance Institution for Salaried Employees (BfA) in order to gain recognition for her incapacity to work, and to obtain a disability pension. If she wins, it could create a precedent for other injured flight attendants. In Australia a flight attendant has already been paid € 97,000 compensation, having been exposed to oil fumes in an aircraft in 1992, and has been suffering from respiratory problems since.
“The doctors thought I wouldn’t survive”, said the former chief flight attendant Aida Infante.
The Pilot Union “Cockpit” (VC), the Independent Flight Attendants Organisation (UFO) and the trade union Verdi are demanding that airlines adequately protect crew and passengers from toxins in the cabin.
A spokesperson for Lufthansa, the company where Aida Infante used to work, said on the matter, “On normal flights the concentration of pollutants in the air (...) is in the lower detection range using current measurement methods. (...) The concentration is comparable to that in a home or an office. But they are lower than the air pollution in cities”. (More excerpts from the statement at the end of the interview)
sueddeutsche.de: How did the first symptoms of poisoning manifest themselves?
Aida Infante: In 1988 I started as a completely healthy person and was thoroughly medically checked. After two years working as a flight attendant I often suffered with flu-like symptoms and headaches, and as it got worse due to bronchitis, pneumonia and various other infections, I was signed off sick. In addition I constantly had ulcerated sinuses.
sueddeutsche.de: At that time you didn’t suspect that it was caused by chemicals in the cabin air?
Infante: Being a flight attendant was my dream job so I didn’t have any such thoughts until on one flight my kidneys ruptured and I collapsed. I know now that our kidneys accumulate toxins. Later on came signs of paralysis, dizziness, concentration and speech problems.
sueddeutsche.de: Were your colleagues also affected?
Infante: On my last flight from Frankfurt to Caracas two thirds of the crew collapsed. We had splitting headaches, vomiting, nausea, shortness of breath, skin rashes and heart problems. After that I could hardly speak or walk. My life consisted of going to the toilet and back.
sueddeutsche.de: Did you detect anything unusual on this flight to Caracas?
Infante: It’s hard to say exactly, but then the aircraft always smelt of oil or smoke and to me it seemed as normal as the smell of exhaust fumes on motorways – it was just part of flying. There are always some toxins present, not only when it really smells, because the cabin air comes in through the engines. (Editor's note: The so-called bleed air may contain toxic chemicals from heated oil caused by inadequate maintenance or leaking seals in the engine).
sueddeutsche.de: The new Dreamliner from Boeing won’t take in air from the engines, but instead will use a compressor to suck it in through an external intake ...
Infante: There will still be pesticides that have to be sprayed in the cabin before landing in certain countries and also flame retardants in cabin furnishings – even cabin crew uniforms are usually treated with flame retardants.
sueddeutsche.de: What did doctors say as your health continued to deteriorate?
Infante: For two years I visited aviation doctors, general practitioners, specialists and none of them looked for toxins. Some asserted that I was just imagining everything. A neurologist announced that I had Multiple Sclerosis and probably had only about two years to live. Luckily he was wrong. A few years earlier I had had my baby – my child was ill for the first five years and had accumulated toxins from my body during the pregnancy, so confirmed my doctor afterwards.
“Real holes in my brain”
Infante: It was at the end of the nineties. The Munich-based poisons expert and head of the Munich Research Institute, Professor Helmuth Müller-Mohnssen diagnosed a serious pesticide poisoning. After that, using a SPECT scan, the environmental doctor Kurt Müller discovered an energy metabolic disorder of the brain (perfusion), caused by neurotoxins that also caused genetic damage. I still don’t produce enough detoxifying enzymes and consequently I have developed multiple allergies and chemical sensitivities.
sueddeutsche.de: How does it affect your life?
Infante: Any contact with a chemical can confine me to bed afterwards, often for days at a time. I can only go shopping with a breathing mask and can only eat clean organic and uncontaminated food. The furniture must also be free from toxins. I am in constant pain, am always tired and suffer from numerous secondary conditions including nerve and muscle damage. So I am considered 50% severely disabled. I have only survived because I have paid for my detoxification and treatments myself - the statutory health insurance doesn’t cover it. Subsequently my doctors told me they didn’t think I would ever make it.
sueddeutsche.de: Now that you had your diagnosis – how did your employer respond?
Infante: I went to the aviation doctor with my sick certificate which stated “perfusion of the brain, probably caused by pesticides”. My lawyer wasn’t allowed to attend the meeting, although it related to whether I would keep my job. Nevertheless, the doctor wrote down “rheumatoid symptoms of unclear origin”. I asked if he was serious and he pointed at about 3000 files and said “Oh, girl, these are all colleagues of yours in a similar position. Now just remember who pays my wages.”
“Some affected people have given up”
Infante: In 1999 I was declared unfit to fly by the aviation doctor, but today I am still classified as fully fit to work by the BfA contrary to the present medical evidence and expert opinion. I would have gladly continued employment on the ground in cabin crew training, and as a chief flight attendant was also qualified to do it. But the personnel department told me that I should be happy to get a job with them as a dishwasher. It was too stupid – the contract had been terminated. At the time I didn’t have the strength to fight, and was too preoccupied with just surviving.
sueddeutsche.de: Did you work again once your health started to improve?
Infante: Yes, but no longer with Lufthansa. I didn’t want to be retired or to be paid by the state. I’ve tried to work again several times, for example in a bank. But I had to visit homes, and even the smallest concentration of pollutions in the air would make me pass out. In simple terms, only five percent of chemically-poisoned people are as badly affected as me, but no employer will accept that. With deterioration of health comes loss of livelihood.
sueddeutsche.de: Do you know how many airline employees are suffering from the results of poisoning?
Infante: I know that in Professor Müller-Mohnssen’s aircrew study at the end of the nineties, in which I also took part, a hundred aircrew were proven to have been poisoned, and the number injured by toxic cabin air goes into the thousands. Aircrew and passengers with neurological symptoms regularly contact physicians, clinics and consultants around the world.
sueddeutsche.de: What has happened to other colleagues who have been affected?
Infante: Not all have been able to hack it. I’ve been told that many have had to give up. One colleague is in a wheelchair and has to be looked after by her parents. In order to try and make ends meet, many have made deals – cash severance payments in return for keeping their mouths shut. I prefer to help other victims and to advise them. It’s shocking what I’ve found out. There is too little help for those affected.
sueddeutsche.de: For example?
Infante: On one flight three colleagues became ill and informed the flight crew, but the pilots told them to stop complaining. And it seems that incident reports are often simply not taken seriously or are not passed on – and as a result the number of reported incidents won’t escalate.
sueddeutsche.de: What would you expect from an airline to protect people on board?
Infante: At the least, activated carbon masks should be available for crew and passengers in the event of smoke. They filter up to 99 percent of aerosols in the air for up to seven hours. In that time the pilots can land the aircraft. In addition, warning devices similar to smoke detectors could be installed that sound an alarm in the cockpit if there is an excess of harmful chemicals in the air. There is no reason for airlines not to do this - the risk to people on board is just too high. In my view, failing to do this is actually criminally negligent.
Not only frequent fliers are at risk
Infante: I and a lot of others that I’ve had contact with have been rendered bedridden after just one flight. This includes passengers too. One lady has permanent paralysis in her left arm following one flight. Another passenger fell ill after just one flight to South America.
sueddeutsche.de: What do you advise people who believe that they have been poisoned by chemicals in aircraft?
Infante: If during a flight or immediately afterwards they had symptoms such as severe headache, dizziness, nausea or racing heartbeat, they should promptly get a blood and urine sample and have it tested for substances like TCP, beryllium, organophosphates, pesticides or plasticizers that are specifically found in airliners. Then they should consult an established environmental health professional as soon as possible. So I would then advise them to contact the environmental health organisations.
sueddeutsche.de: You’ve lost your dream job, can’t work any more, can’t easily leave the house – you must be very angry towards those responsible ...
Infante: The days of rage and anger are long gone, I feel no hatred towards anyone. I am a very positive person. And I don’t have so much energy that I want to waste it on the people who have caused this. However, I can’t comprehend that everything simply carries on as it is and that nothing is done.
sueddeutsche.de: Would you fly again yourself?
Infante: Only with an oxygen tent. I don’t want to expose myself to the large amounts of harmful substances in aircraft cabins.
Lufthansa responded to Aida Infante’s allegations that related to her time working with the airline. “We won’t make any comment on Ms Infante’s circumstances”. To the question of why passengers and crew are not provided with activated carbon masks to protect against oil fumes, a spokesperson for the airline said, “Because it is not necessary. A recent study involving several German aircraft using a very precise measuring system showed that the engine oil additive tricresyl phosphate (TCP) was not detectable in the cabin air. Lufthansa investigations have never found any evidence of the toxic tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate (TOCP) in cabin air. Since there is no known method to detect TCP in the air, installation of detectors in relation to the contaminants you suspect in the cabin air would be meaningless”. As to whether a smoke incident requires a landing as soon as possible, Lufthansa answered, “Any form of smoke is taken very seriously by Lufthansa pilots. Therefore it occasionally happens that Lufthansa aircraft turn back to the departure airport or make a landing en route. These are sensible precautions.”
“Lufthansa take the possibility of health dangers from contaminated cabin air very seriously. In the past four years the Lufthansa medical centre hasn’t recorded a single case of an employee with reported neurological symptoms that could have been caused by cabin air that may have been contaminated.
After so-called fume events which occasionally occur in adverse conditions in flight, crew members report short-term burning of the eyes and irritation of the airways. An inquiry by the German association for transport, who are responsible for all the German airlines, showed that only nine people in Germany received payment for an occupational disease. None came from Lufthansa (...)
According to British research, the number of neurological disorders in aircrew is too small to make a clear conclusion about the link with an occupational exposure to pollutants in aircraft. Due to the very low number of cases and no clear evidence, scientific studies in Britain have only now been commissioned. (...)
The medical bodies of national aviation authorities are addressing the issue of fume events. Added to that, airlines are required to properly maintain the engine systems, auxiliary power units and air conditioning to reduce these incidents to an absolute minimum.
In current aircraft, fresh air enters as a so-called bleed air from the compressor of the engines into the cockpit and cabin. (…) Effective filtering of the bleed air is not yet possible with current technology. Existing methods such as the use of activated carbon filters are not possible due to the high pressure and temperature. Aircraft and filter manufacturers are working on solutions. (...)
Effective removal of pollutants from the bleed air (aircraft exhaust on the ramp, accidental ingestion of de-icing fluid into the engines, overfilling of engine oil or hydraulic oil) is technically very complicated and requires entirely new designs, for example by not using outside fresh air.
Reported fume events are extremely rare at Lufthansa (...). Only the Airbus A340-600 with Trent 500 engines recently saw a greater number of cases, due to a design fault. The manufacturer Rolls-Royce made remedial technical modifications to all of the engines more than a year ago.”
Translated by the Aerotoxic Association
Original article in German: “Gift in der Kabinenluft? – ‘Fliegen nur noch mit Sauerstoffzelt’", Süddeutsche Zeitung, 20 August 2010