Toxic air in planes under spotlight

Two official investigations are being opened into alarming leaks of poison into commercial airliners in flight. They follow research showing that fumes have rendered pilots incapable of flying their aircraft safely.

The New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority is studying the findings.

The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is to examine the threat. Equipment will be fitted in at least one plane in the hope of studying a leak.

Next week a pressure group, the Aerotoxic Association, will be launched to campaign on the issue and will publish the Aviation Contaminated Air Reference Manual, which includes details of more than 1050 incidents in Britain.

Air travel has been made possible over the past 60 years by "bleed air pressurisation", which takes hot air out of the engine, cools it down and then feeds it - without filtering it - into the plane's cabin and cockpit. Sometimes it becomes contaminated with engine oils containing chemicals.

A survey of British pilots found less than 4 per cent of contaminated air incidents were reported to the CAA. Neuropsychologist Sarah Mackenzie Ross has estimated that, on that basis, 197,000 passengers on nearly 2000 British flights were exposed in 2004.

She has examined 27 affected pilots for another official investigation, and found all but one suffered "chronic health problems, including fatigue, sleep difficulties, fluctuating gastrointestinal problems, numbness and tingling in fingers and toes, memory loss and word-finding difficulties".

A spokesman for the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority said the British investigations were news to them but they would be followed up.

"If it is found to amount to anything, then we will look into it. "

There had been some cases of gas leaks in New Zealand on older planes many years ago, but it was not believed contaminated air incidents were a problem at the moment.

-INDEPENDENT, STAFF REPORTERS

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