What Are You Breathing on that Airplane?

Some of us can get a little squeamish flying on airplanes.  Sitting in an enclosed space with other passengers sneezing and coughing around us, we hope the air circulation system is working properly.

Unfortunately, the air circulation system may be one more thing to worry about.  Breathable air in airplane cabins is provided by the engine compressor.  And it’s not filtered.  As a result, this air contains traces of engine oil and other aircraft fluids.

The World Health Organization, working with the University of Stirling, studied the health effects of breathing this contaminated air.  They found a clear pattern of acute and chronic symptoms, ranging from headaches and dizziness to breathing and vision problems.  (University of Stirling)

Pilots and crew members were the most affected, given their time in the air.  “What we are seeing here is aircraft crew being repeatedly exposed to low levels of hazardous contaminants from the engine oils in bleed air,” says University of Ulster’s Vyvyan Howard, “and to a lesser extent this also applies to frequent fliers.

“Exposure to this complex mixture should be avoided also for passengers, susceptible individuals and the unborn.”

Researchers in China surveyed more than 100 commercial flights over two years to measure volatile organic compounds in aircraft cabins.  They detected an average of 59 VOCs in each flight, including alkanes, alkenes, esters and alcohols.  Their analytical equipment included an Agilent gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer.

Researchers in the U.S. wanted to see if recirculation filters could be used to detect aircraft air quality incidents (such as engine oil leaks).  Unfortunately, using HEPA filters to detect engine oil proved to be a challenging scientific task.  The study used an Agilent GC/MSD to analyze samples from the compressor/bleed air simulator.

Researchers in Canada successfully used standard air filter sampling technology to develop a small air sampling system for monitoring the air in aircraft.  They used an Agilent GC, GC/MSD and column in their work.

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