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A lawsuit currently pending against aircraft manufacturers Boeing and McDonnell Douglas is alerting the public to a danger that has not previously been widely known: the potential for toxic fumes to enter and circulate in the cabin air on passenger airplanes.

Terry Williams, a former American Airlines flight attendant for 17 years, has experienced chronic migraines, balance and vision problems, tremors in her left arm, tingles in her feet and a loss of childhood memories, ever since April 11, 2007, when a misty cloud of smoke began to circulate around the cabin of the MD-82 aircraft she was on. She is now suing Boeing and McDonnell Douglas (since bought up by Boeing) for damages caused by toxins that were allowed to enter the air on the flight unfiltered and without sensors to alert passengers to their presence.

They "knew or should have known that toxic nerve agents, contaminates, and dangerous fumes could bleed into the plane’s ventilation system, causing serious and irreversible health effects," her attorneys said in a written statement.

Between a tickle in her throat, cough and headache, Williams thought she had the start of a common cold when she stepped off the flight in question. But she says the symptoms grew worse and included a nasal discharge she described to CNN as "neon green, the same color as antifreeze."

Within several weeks, Williams says, she had to make repeated visits to emergency rooms before a neurologist told her she’d been the victim of toxic exposure. –CNN

The toxic exposure is caused by the way that air is brought into the cabin. Air in passenger jets most commonly combines re-circulated air already in the cabin with cooled, compressed air bled off the engines. The problem is that engine oil seals can leak, causing toxic fumes to enter the cabin. The chemical tricresyl phosphate, found in nerve agents and pesticides, is of particular concern in bleed air, and is known to cause neurological and other health problems, including memory and vision loss, headaches, tremors, and vomiting.

A National Research Council report in 2002, using data from three Canadian airlines, said on one aircraft model nearly four out of 1,000 flights had a fume event.

The Committee on Toxicity in the United Kingdom, a group made up of independent experts who advise government agencies, said in September 2007 that pilots reported events in 1 percent of flights and that maintenance inspected and confirmed incidents in 0.05 percent of flights.

"These frequency estimates may all sound low, but consider that there were 10.65 million flights on U.S. registered aircraft in 2008. Even 0.05 percent of flights translates into about 14 events per day," said Judith Murawski, an industrial hygienist with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, who has studied the issue for more than nine years. –CNN

While Congress is beginning to pay attention to the dangers of flight poisoning, with the House passing the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 (it’s now in a Senate committee) to stimulate research and development of in-light sensor and air cleaning technology, action combating this problem is long overdue. Hopefully Williams’ lawsuit will help others who have been injured come forward to demand that the public be protected with immediate changes in aircraft safety standards.

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