Cabin Air Quality

 Background

A jet engine essentially works by compressing air in its front part; the compressed air then flows to the middle part of the engine where fuel is added and burnt; the expanded hot gases then blast out of the rear part of the engine.

At jet aircraft operating altitudes the air pressure is too low to provide enough oxygen for the passengers and crew. In most jet aircraft, to supply air to the aircraft cabin at a pressure sufficient to allow the aircraft occupants to breathe comfortably, cabin air is tapped (bled) from the front compressor part of the jet engines. Bleed air from the engine is initially hot due to its compression and some of this heat is used to warm the cabin; it is then further cooled before entering the cabin. Typically, bleed air is not directly filtered when it first enters the air conditioning system, although it is filtered when recirculated back into the cabin.

A minor degree of contamination of the bleed air by engine oil that has leaked past oil seals, plus hydraulic fluid, de-icing fluid, fuel, and other environmental contaminants can occur in bleed air supplied cabins. Many of the likely substances involved in cabin air contamination events are also general environmental pollutants and so persons who do not fly may be exposed to these substances to a lesser or to a greater degree. Hence, although these contaminants might be measured and found to be at a particular level in aircraft, they may be found at higher levels in homes, offices and other modes of transport.

There may be many thousands of potential contaminants arising from aircraft engine oil and other fluids, but the range and quantities depend on multiple factors such as the age of the oil and the very specific conditions that an individual engine may generate.

To a degree, the toxicology of the contaminants, alone or in combination, is uncertain. However, it is known that some of the likely contaminants, if in sufficient quantity, are harmful, and it is also known that the toxicity of mixtures of substances may be greater than the sum of the individual substances.

 BALPA Position

For all significant cabin air contamination events, such as those that have warranted an air safety report from the crew, the full disclosure of the engineering investigation into the event should be provided to the affected crew member as and when it becomes available. This is because the engineering report can inform the medical assessment of the crew member. Note that the disclosure should be full, rather than any form of precis.

Our principal instrument for the investigation of health effects is the cabin air care pathway.