Have you heard of “aerotoxic syndrome”?  If you’re like most of us, the term is completely new.  But a search for that term will return 108,00 results on Google. 

The term was coined in 1999 by Dr. Harry Hoffman, a former US Navy flight surgeon, Prof Chris Winder, a toxicologist at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, and Jean Christophe Balouet, a French environmental forensics expert, who claimed that breathing air in an airline cabin could be toxic. 

This week, the Telegraph newspaper reported that a coroner in the U.K. has warned that exposure to toxic fumes in plane cabins pose a health risk to frequent fliers and aircrew.  British coroner Sheriff Stanhope Payne urged British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority to take "urgent action to prevent future deaths", after the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate.

Westgate died in December 2012 at the age of 43.  For years he suffered from health problems, including severe headaches, mental confusion, sight problems and insomnia, he believed were caused by toxic fumes leaked into the cabin air.

According to the Aerotoxic Association, a group formed in 2007 to address this syndrome, one in 2,000 flights is recorded as a “fume event,” where toxic oil from the jet engines leaks into cabins. Air crewmembers that say they have had their careers cut short started the association and are making the public aware of the possible exposure to fliers.

How does it happen?

Almost all commercial aircraft utilize a system that compresses air from the engines in order to pressurize the cabin.  In the event of a faulty seal, oil particles can enter the cabin creating that “fume event.” The only exception at this point is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that doesn’t utilize this system. 

Air monitoring systems

Airlines are supposed to monitor the air in the cabins and keep them at levels deemed safe by authorities.  According to the airlines, they do just that.  When a breakdown occurs, and an event takes place, oxygen masks can be deployed. Airlines like USAir have hired toxicologists to consult on the impact of exposure to an oil fume leak.  In their findings, they state that exposure to fumes is at such a low dose, and for such a short time, that they don’t match the data on health risks. 

Should You Be Concerned?

The average flier makes one or two trips a year, making this a nonissue for most.  The odds of your being on a plane, with a “fume event,” is one in 2,000, says the Aerotoxic Association.  You should be more concerned about the truck or bus you’re driving behind on the way to work than you should be about an issue with oil fumes on a plane.  This changes for airline crews as well as frequent fliers.  For those, like me, who fly almost every week, reports of aerotoxic syndrome can be a little disconcerting. 

Will a facemask work?

We see travelers, especially in Asia, wearing those light, fabric-based facemasks.  We always wonder whether they are trying to avoid spreading something they have, or to avoid catching something.  If you think wearing one of these masks will make much of a difference, in the event of exposure, you might want to think again.  They will do little to prevent exposure to fumes.  If you are truly concerned, a respirator mask might be the answer, but you’ll probably end up freaking out your fellow passengers.  It won’t be very comfortable either.

What’s the answer?

Understand that flying at altitudes of 35,000 feet exposes you to a higher level of cosmic radiation than if you were on the ground.  That should be your first concern, if you tend to fly as much as a pilot.  But then again, peer reviewed studies conclude that airline pilots suffer no higher incidence of cancers than the population as a whole.

So maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and stop worrying about your next flight. 

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Mark Murphy is a noted travel expert, author and founder of TravelPulse.com.  You can follow him on Twitter at @murphytravels.