Poisonous planes' story needs description of "poison."

Posted by Paul Eubig, DVM at Oct 21, 2009 05:00 PM |

Angus Stickler's BBC news story highlights research about a health problem called aero-toxic, or sick aircraft, syndrome. Pilots, cabin crew and sometimes passengers can develop nervous system symptoms – such as tremors, unsteadiness and memory loss – after flying on commercial aircraft. However, because of its sporadic nature, the problem so far remains poorly defined. Some people question if it is a real illness.

Stickler reports that toxins known as organophosphates have been identified in the blood and fat of a group of pilots. This finding provides a possible clue as to the cause of the health problems and can be a step towards better defining and understanding the syndrome.

It would have been helpful at that point in the article to briefly describe which organophosphates were measured in the pilots. Many people think of pesticides when they hear the term, because a large class of commonly used insecticides are called organophosphates.

However, tricresyl phosphate is the organophosphate chemical in question here. The substance is not an insecticide. Instead, its chemical properties make it a desirable lubricant additive to hydraulic fluid and engine oil for aircraft.

It is suspected that the tricresyl phosphate enters the cockpit and cabin from air that passes through the engines, which is called bleed air. Normally bleed air is safe to breathe. But if heated oil or hydraulic fluid leaks from the engines, the vapors can enter the plane's air supply, exposing those aboard to the tricresyl phosphate and other fumes.

Providing some background information on tricresyl phosphate would inform the article's readers about another type of organophosphate that may be unhealthy, especially for those who spend a lot of time on airplanes.  It also might encourage them to look further into this newly described health issue.