A MONTH after a new scientific study showed that poisoning from toxic aircraft fumes led to the death in 2012 of BA pilot Richard Westgate (see Eye 1333), the Eye has learned that provisional postmortem findings involving a cabin crew member have found similar evidence of organophosphate neurotoxicity.
The recent deaths of two other BA aircrew are also to be investigated after their autopsies showed no obvious cause of death.
Mr Westgate, 43 (pictured), who had suffered years of headaches, nausea, confusion and sight problems, was one of at least 150 flight crew across Europe considering civil action against the airline industry over chronic illnesses that they say were induced by repeated exposure to engine oil fumes. Last month their cause was boosted by the case study of extensive postmortem tests on Mr Westgate, believed to be the first of its kind on a sick aircrew member. Published in the Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry, it found extensive neurological damage, which had also infiltrated heart muscle tissue, consistent with organophosphate poisoning.
Noxious fumes from engine oil
Solicitor Frank Cannon, who had been instructed by Mr Westgate, told the Eye the paper provides the link between the ill-health of some crew and noxious fumes from engine oil leaking into cockpits and cabins – a problem first reported in the Eye more than 14 years ago.
Professor MB Abou-Donia, an expert on OP poisoning who led the US/Netherlands study, said Mr Westgate’s was one of the worst cases of damage he had seen. He added that repeated low-dosage exposure to organophosphates is just as dangerous as a single large dose, if not more so.
Now the Eye has learned that similar OP exposure may be a contributory factor in the sudden death in January of a 34-year-old BA cabin crew member. The man, whom the Eye is not naming at his family’s request, died following a long-haul flight. Initial postmortem reports could find no obvious cause of death, but detailed examination of tissue from his peripheral nervous system shows an identical pattern of organophosphate damage to that revealed in Mr Westgate’s results. His family is now awaiting the results of brain and spinal tissue tests.
Potentially lethal cocktail
Scientists will also examine the tissue of one crew member who died while swimming but whose postmortem showed he had not drowned, and another who died during a long-haul flight, again with no obvious cause of death.
Eye readers may remember that Mr Westgate died within days of another BA pilot, Karen Lysakowska, also 43, who was also claiming that she had been poisoned by contaminated cabin air. Although these cases all involve BA, cabin fumes are an industry-wide problem because of a cost-cutting decision to “bleed” air from the engines and cool it for people to breathe in the cabins, instead of taking in a separate, fresh supply. There is no filter and no system for monitoring air quality, even though most jet engine oils consist of a potentially lethal cocktail of toxic ingredients. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is seen as the answer to any fume problem, as it takes in direct fresh air for the cabin.
Airlines and manufacturers have consistently denied that they have been poisoning pilots, crew and passengers, citing either government – or industry-funded research suggesting no link between air quality and the often neurological and respiratory problems which have prematurely ended flight careers. Their stance will now be seriously challenged by the pioneering work of the researchers in the US and the Netherlands at the inquests of Mr Westgate and others, which are expected to start next year.
Mr Cannon told the Eye that he expected the inquests to be hotly contested from all quarters of the industry – “But it has an alternative: that is to install effective filters and air detectors immediately and then follow the lead of Boeing with the 787 for all new designs.”