Last Monday, on the BBC documentary Britain’s Great War, presenter Jeremy Paxman highlighted the case of the munitions worker Charlotte Meade. She suffered from an industrial injury during the First World War, contracting ‘toxic jaundice’ from chemicals used in arms manufacture, and died within a year. Under war-time censorship, the press was prevented from reporting the case.
Not so long ago, the same Jeremy Paxman admitted that Newsnight, which he hosts, is a tad ‘boring’ on slow news days. The irony is that, if he were aware of the modern equivalents of Charlotte Meade, he would be without a slow news day between now and the next general election. His team would be reporting one of the biggest corporate scandals since corporations first came into being. It is also a political scandal, as I shall explain.
Over the past six months or so, I have been researching for a book on toxic injury from leaks of jet engine oil fumes into aircraft cabins. I never doubted that my client, former Flybe captain and chair of the Aerotoxic Association John Hoyte, was genuine. As soon as I learned that aircraft cabin air is bled directly off the engine feed, passing close by engine oil, I could see it was an industrial accident waiting to happen. Unlike most journalists, I have A-Level chemistry. The shocking thing is that it seems that aeronautical engineers do not; or at least, do not recall what they learned.
What has astonished me over the course of the past few months, however, has been the following:
- Just how serious the toxic injuries are, and that jet engine oil contains organophosphates. It is similar in seriousness to WW1 cases of ‘toxic jaundice’, and the cause is every bit as clear. While most flights pose minimal risk, from time to time an engine seal fails and there is a leak of toxic fumes.
- Just how common these leaks of toxic gases are. There is industry jargon for such incidents: ‘fume events’. On 12 November 1999 in Malmö, Sweden, both pilots nearly passed out and had to don oxygen masks. Yet there were no product recalls; no response at all from the industry; and there have been many incidents since. Just last Friday, a British Airways 747 had to make an emergency landing in Dallas-Fort Worth after a fume event. It is unlikely that BA or the Civil Aviation Authority will be issuing any press releases – or advising those affected of the chemicals to which they have been exposed. A BA insider says: ‘This fume issue is getting worse; the general standard of BA’s 747s is worrying.’
- Just how many people are affected – certainly thousands; possibly hundreds of thousands of people, nearly all mis-diagnosed; many confused as a result of irreversible brain injury.
- The extent of the industry’s cover-ups and deceptions. This includes directing airline medical officers to mis-diagnose with psychological causes.
- The way in which every arm of the British state, including the medical establishment, has allied itself with those causing harm, rather than those suffering harm, in a chronicle of biased tribunals and disciplinary/grievance procedures, and denial of basic human rights, including health rights. Even the NHS comes out badly, as it refuses to acknowledge that chronic fatigue can be caused by toxic injury.
- A failure rigorously to honour and police the ‘duty of care’ that is supposed to lie at the heart of health and safety legislation.
- The collusion right across the political spectrum, including the main union set up to represent pilots.
What I had initially assumed was the plight of a small number of people to get their industrial illness recognized instead turns out to be a major scandal, raising profound questions about human rights and the accountability of democratic institutions.
Between 2008 and 2011 the UK Government pretended to investigate the matter. Having turned down a request for funding by Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross of University College London for a large-scale study into affected pilots, following initial research that showed alarming cognitive deterioration, the Department for Transport organized some studies that did not involve any fume events or any affected pilots. Researchers measured air quality on 100 normal flights (using a sampler criticized by one of the peer reviews). It revealed trace elements of organophosphates on some flights, and very high levels of (unspecified) ultrafine particles. Into the executive summary was inserted the phrase: ‘There was no evidence of pollutants occurring in cabin air at levels exceeding available health and safety standards and guidelines.’ This has been duly cut and pasted by Ministry of Transport mandarins into the minister’s statement after the report’s publication in May 2011, and by aviation industry spin doctors since, which was precisely the intention. British Airways kindly reproduced it upon the death of its pilot Richard Westgate, as seen on this regional ITV clip.
It is the same technique as the ’45-minute’ clause inserted into the ’dodgy dossier’ to justify the Iraq invasion. As cover-ups go, it is not even particularly sophisticated. It has, however, been enough to scare off lazy news editors, who want their scandals brought to them on a plate – a recent example is the Mid-Staffordshire NHS scandal, a story broken by David Cameron, not the media, and only fully covered since the publication of the Francis Inquiry. UK newspaper coverage of toxins in cabin air pretty much stops in May 2011, with the honourable exception of the Express.
The aviation industry goes to great lengths to cast doubt on the numerous studies showing ill-health from fume leaks; arguing that they do not prove causality; that there is ‘only’ a correlation and could be a coincidence. This is like saying that there is ‘only’ a correlation between road traffic accidents and head injuries. People are healthy, they get exposed to a fume event, they get sick, sometimes very badly sick, with the same chemicals in their body as you find in jet engine oil. Some coincidence.
By the way, I’m not an anti-corporate campaigner. I am pro-business. I think that there are probably too many workplace regulations. What we have is the worst of both worlds: honest, decent employers saddled with prescriptive rules on this or that way to handle a grievance procedure, while authorities fail to implement essential safety laws in an industry with high-level political connections, who play the jobs card with unions and governments when their insurers smell the possibility of compensation payouts.
As for the business implications, while there would be compensation payouts and upfront costs if aviation ended the practice of bleed air, there would be massive operating savings from lower staff turnover once they stop poisoning their employees – especially given the huge cost of training pilots. Nearly all employers grossly under-estimate the cost of high staff absence and turnover.
But one should not need a business case for doing the right thing, when the wrong thing is as wrong as this. I am ashamed that my profession, journalism, hasn’t done enough to expose this. The government doesn’t formally have censorship, but in the aerotoxic scandal, it hasn’t needed it – so far. I hope we don’t have to wait 100 years for justice.
- My full dossier is available here. The book No Fuming Please, by John Hoyte, with a Foreword by David Learmount, is due to be published later this year, while the movie A Dark Reflection, starring Georgina Sutcliffe, Marina Sirtis and Mark Dymond, is also due for release in 2014. A trailer is viewable on this link. Relevant Twitter accounts: @felipewh @aerotoxic @adarkreflection.
- Some journalists are honourable exceptions, notably Ted Jeory of the Express, and David Learmount of Flight International. Dominic Callaghan of the BBC has prepared a short piece, due for airing Monday 17th February. See also this short documentary aired in Australia just before Christmas, which reveals how the industry has known all about the problem for years: http://sixtyminutes.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=8762931