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Long-haul air passengers exposed to cabin fumes that cause heart problems

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Long-haul air passengers and crew are regularly exposed to ‘fume events’—where the cabin fills with fumes from engine oils—which can cause neurological, cardiac and respiratory problems, a new report has discovered.

Although it’s been happening for 70 years, fume events are still not recognised by medicine and doctors haven’t prepared any treatments for sufferers, says a team of experts.

The group, the International Fume Events Task Force, is also calling on the aviation industry to make planes safer so that fumes from engine oils and hydraulic fluids don’t leak into cabins from the air supply system.  They can also happen when there’s an increase in contaminants in the cabin.

Short-term effects from fume events include foggy thinking, dizziness, fatigue and memory and cognitive thinking.  Long-term damage—which can happen to frequent flyers and cabin crew—include neurological, respiratory and cardiac problems, and several cancers could also be caused by exposure to cabin fumes.

The task force, made up of 17 doctors, toxicologists and aviation experts, has been researching fume events for six years, and has come up with an action plan for doctors and airline staff to investigate and treat them.

Reports of cabin crew suffering symptoms have been increasing over the years, says Dr Susan Michaelis, the group’s head and former pilot and aviation health researcher.  “When aircrew or passengers become unwell, whether they are still on the plane, or in the days or weeks afterwards, there’s nothing in the medical books, and they get turned away or are given minimal testing,” she said.

She said the research suggests a direct causal link between a fume event and illness.

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Environmental Health, 2023; 22: doi: 10.1186/s12940-023-00987-8
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