Could the Air You Breathe on Airplanes Actually Be Making You Sick?

A shocking investigation exposes the incident airlines refer to as “fume events”

Woman Looking Through Window While Traveling In Airplane
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A surprising investigation by Kiera Feldman of the Los Angeles Times has exposed the incident airlines refer to as “fume events”—where heated jet engine oil leaks into the air supply, releasing toxic gases into the cabin of the plane. Feldman says that the airline themselves and industry regulators have been aware of these incidents for decades but say they are rare and pose no immediate health risk to crew or passengers.

However, during the investigation, the newspaper discovered that vapors from oil and other mechanical fluids seeped into cabins with regularity across all airlines. These “fume events” have resulted in breathing troubles for all persons on board—from passengers to flight attendants and pilots. Pilots have reportedly had to use oxygen masks in some events.

With airlines continuing to reassure travelers about the safety of air travel during the pandemic by way of HEPA filters and rigorous cleaning regimens, Feldman says the measures aren’t enough to protect from toxic gases and adds that mask-wearing also doesn't make a difference.

Passengers may even be unaware that they are even breathing contaminated air, as the gasses can be odorless, and the symptoms similar to those of jetlag. (Headaches and fatigue are major signs, experts say.) Meanwhile, airlines have no obligation to notify passengers of such an event occurring on the plane.

According to the story, the events have occurred throughout the pandemic as well. In August, JetBlue experienced fume events on flights to Boston and Orlando, while American Airlines flight attendants needed oxygen during a March flight in which the fumes left them dizzy and nauseated. In pre-pandemic times, according to the report, these events happened on around five flights per day.

The entire report can be found here and includes interactive reports that explore the history of the events and the tragic effects they have had on airline crew members.

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  1. Los Angeles Times. "How Toxic Fumes Seep Into the Air You Breathe On Planes." December 17, 2020.