Is airplane air toxic?

There’s a recent CNN article about a flight attendant who became ill after working a flight back in 2007. Her illness is alarming.

First, she felt as though she were coming down with a cold; then her nasal discharge was a neon green — the color of antifreeze! Since then, she claims to have suffered chronic migraine headaches, tingling in her feet, loss of balance and vision problems.

These health problems did not happen without warning. Right before her ailments started, the attendant noticed a “misty haze type of smoke” in the cabin of the American Airlines MD-82 plane. The haze occurred right after the plane landed and was heading to the gate.

The flight attendant’s visit to a neurologist confirmed she had been exposed to toxins. Because her condition is so bad, and she blames the airplane’s design for the toxins, she’s suing Boeing, the maker of the vessel. According to the lawsuit, the “bleed air” had been contaminated.

Bleed air is recirculated cabin air that’s mixed with the air pulled into the engines during a flight. The air that goes through the engine is cooled and compressed before being used in the cabin. The danger of bleed air being contaminated is small, however: according to the CNN article that presents a detailed account of the attendant’s story, one study has found that airplanes can have a fume leak 0.05% of the time. What causes a fume leak is unclear, but one idea is a leaky seal.

Currently, there aren’t conclusions about what caused this particular attendant’s sickness. She had flown for 17 years without any problems. Her case is not the only one where an attendant has become sick allegedly because of airplane air. Some pilots have also reported becoming ill, as have passengers.

The article also points out that because people’s immune systems differ, not everyone will be affected by toxins in the same way; many people may not be affected at all. It is also good to know that there are more studies being conducted to find out more about toxins in airplanes and what should and can be done to minimize the threat. The idea of being afflicted with neon green nasal discharge is not appealing.