Thursday 17 March 2016
[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Cabin Air Safety/Aerotoxic Syndrome
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cabin air safety and aerotoxic syndrome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mrs Gillan. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) for joining me in my application.
I said in my application to the Backbench Business Committee that I am always willing to approach issues of industrial safety with an open mind and a willingness to consider the concerns of the workforce. The reason for that can be summed up in one word: asbestos. We have a terrible legacy of asbestos and mesothelioma in my constituency, and no one would wish to find themselves on the wrong side of history when it comes to a potentially serious health issue in the workplace. From the outset, I acknowledge that I understand and appreciate that aerotoxic syndrome is not yet a recognised medical condition, but it is something of considerable debate, hence our having this debate today.
I am not a medical professional, and I am not saying that it should be down to us as MPs to decide what is a recognised medical condition. However, aerotoxic syndrome has attracted a great deal of attention, both from passengers and, crucially, from those working in the airline industry, which is why it is right for us to have this debate today. Workers are worried, and we have a responsibility to treat the issue seriously. Everybody deserves to have confidence that the air they breathe in the workplace is clean and safe. Many people have got in touch with me since I secured the debate, and they are extremely grateful that their concerns are being raised in the House today. My aim is to present the concerns that have been raised and to make some requests of the Government, which I hope the Minister will listen to and accept.
I will now provide some background for those following the debate who may not be well versed in the topic. The key factor is the use of bleed air to provide a pressurised air supply to the cabin during flights. Bleed air is compressed air from the jet engines, and it is used by the vast majority of passenger aircraft in operation today. The problem arises when faults with engine seals cause seepage into the cockpit and cabin, which in turn can lead to contaminated fumes containing toxins being digested by people on board the plane. It is worrying that the long-term and short-term effects of exposure to contaminated air containing such toxins is not fully known, nor has enough work been done to establish the link between contaminated air and aerotoxic syndrome.
Aerotoxic syndrome affects the peripheral and central nervous systems and the brain. Symptoms include migraines, fatigue, difficulty thinking, numbness, aches and pains, breathing problems and digestive problems. Furthermore, there has been a significant rise in the number of cases, which simply cannot be ignored. It is significant that the Unite trade union tells me that it is currently acting on behalf of 61 individual cases. There is evidence pointing to aerotoxic syndrome being an illness to which cabin crew, not to mention passengers, may be exposed, and it must be treated seriously.
One of the aims of today’s debate is to raise the profile of cabin air safety and aerotoxic syndrome. Until recently I was not particularly aware of aerotoxic syndrome. Today’s debate has caught the attention of the national press and has brought the issue to wider prominence, which can only be a good thing. The issue came to my attention in a briefing for MPs organised by the Unite trade union, of which I am proud to declare myself a member. Unite has been doing some fantastic work on the issue and is doing exactly what a good trade union should do, which is representing the interests and concerns of the workforce. The Government’s attitude towards trade unions can often be quite negative, as evidenced by the Trade Union Bill, but they would be wrong to dismiss this issue raised by the trade unions. We should all agree that representation of the workforce to ensure a safe and healthy environment is a right for all working people.
The briefing was attended by the father of Matthew Bass, which struck a chord with me and other Members present. Matthew, known as Matt to his friends, was a British Airways flight attendant who sadly died in January 2014, having been in the job for almost a decade. He loved his job, and it was a shock to his friends and loved ones when he passed away. He was just 34 years of age. The cause of his death has not been established, but he kept himself fit and healthy. In the last six months of his life, he frequently complained of tiredness and occasionally suffered mild bouts of trembling. After his death, post-mortem tests ruled out Crohn’s disease but failed to establish an alternative cause of death. His family still have many questions, not least as to whether aerotoxic syndrome had some responsibility. My sympathies, and surely those of the whole House, are with Matt’s family and friends as they search for answers. We owe it to him and them to help to find those answers and to take the issue seriously.
Furthermore, the senior coroner for the county of Dorset wrote to the Civil Aviation Authority last year regarding his concerns about the death of British Airways pilot Richard Westgate. He wrote that organophosphate compounds, which are present in aircraft cabin air, were found in Mr Westgate’s system and presented a risk to health. Worryingly, there is no real-time monitoring to detect such compounds. The coroner also added that, in his opinion, there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is relevant to the organophosphate poisoning campaign run by the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group, with which I have worked on behalf of my constituent, a farmer, Stephen Forward. This is obviously a Department for Transport debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that the debate is equally relevant to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health and that we need the Government to be far more active in addressing these issues?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. I was not aware of the DEFRA angle until she informed me of it, which further reinforces the case and people’s concerns. I would be particularly interested if the Minister addressed that point and the coroner’s letter regarding the British Airways pilot.
By raising this issue I am in no way seeking to do down the British aerospace industry, which I am sure is true of everyone here today. The aerospace industry is a vital part of the UK’s manufacturing output, and I am proud that that is particularly the case in north-west England—and long may that continue. I also have no desire to do down the UK’s successful aviation industry and this country’s world-class airports, which are another vital part of the UK economy. Like many Members present, I have a strong relationship with my local airport in Manchester.
Airlines have a duty of care to their staff, as do all workplaces, and I am sure they would want to reassure their staff on safety. I will be writing to the UK’s major airlines to find out exactly what they are doing on this issue. I dare say that pressure from the Government would strengthen that campaign. Many concerns have been raised by Unite and by cabin crew, and we have a duty of care to those people to reassure them and, if necessary, to protect them.
I echo what the hon. Gentleman says about the duty of care. I imagine that no one here would feel comfortable working in an environment where we and our customers may possibly be exposed to the risk of breathing in contaminated fumes.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for coming along to the debate and making that point. She is absolutely right. By addressing issues where concerns exist, it only strengthens an industry if it can reassure its workers and service users that their safety is guaranteed. I am sure we would all echo that point.
No one disputes that fume events, where toxins enter the cabin, occur. Estimates suggest that fume events happen at least once in every 2,000 flights. Given the number of flights in the UK every day, that weighs on the mind. It should be of great concern that no aircraft currently flying has any form of detection system fitted to warn crews when cabin air has become contaminated. Furthermore, there is a lack of training and crew awareness of the possible adverse consequences of contaminated air exposure in the cockpit and cabin. There are even examples of crews saying that they felt they became impaired or incapacitated in-flight as a direct consequence of exposure.
I have two requests that I would like the Minister to consider and to which I hope he will refer in his speech. First, I would like an independent inquiry to be set up to consider the risks and hazards associated with contaminated aircraft cabin air. Setting up an inquiry has a lot of support both from unions and cabin crew, and it is the right thing to do. I do not believe that adequate work has been done on the issue yet, and such work would answer a lot of questions. I seriously urge the Minister to consider making that happen. If not, I would appreciate a reply as to why it is not possible now.
Secondly, I would like appropriate cabin air monitoring and detection systems to be installed in aircraft that operate using bleed air. I am told that the technology exists to do that, and it seems to make sense to do so. The Government could consider legislation to make that happen or, at the very least, they could begin discussions with airlines and our European counterparts. Just as it is now commonplace for homes and workplaces to install simple carbon monoxide detectors to prevent tragic deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning, so we must ensure that it is the norm for aeroplanes to be fitted with devices that can detect air bleed events.
This issue was brought to my attention not by Unite but by a constituent of mine, Alessia Iacovone, who was a colleague of Matt Bass. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not only about the desire for an explanation of why colleagues die; it is about the fact—this is precisely the point he made—that cabin crew working for BA and other airlines do not know at present whether or how frequently they are at risk, because there is no monitoring on board aircraft?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. That is exactly my perspective in bringing this debate. From what I have seen, there is enough concern out there to warrant a serious attempt to reassure people that their safety is secure. That can only be an asset to the UK aviation and aerospace industry.
To bring my remarks to a conclusion, I thank the Backbench Business Committee again for granting us the time to debate this issue. I thank my fellow sponsors, Unite for the help it has given me in my office and the many cabin crew workers who have assisted Unite and contacted me directly to bring the issue to greater prominence. I appreciate that aviation issues tend to lend themselves to international solutions and that the matter is being discussed in several other countries too. It is significant that the new Boeing Dreamliners do not operate the bleed air system, and I understand that that may eventually become the industry standard. In the meantime, however, a clear majority of aircraft still operate the bleed air system, so the issue will not go away.
Out of respect for the many thousands of cabin crew who work in this vital industry, let us take action to ensure that we know everything we can about cabin air safety. By arming ourselves with greater knowledge, we can better place ourselves to guarantee them the safe working conditions that we expect for all workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this debate, and I add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for the important issue of cabin air and aerotoxic syndrome to be discussed properly. I start by associating myself with all the words of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and agreeing with what he said. Matt Bass was my constituent, and I dedicate my remarks as a tribute to him and all the other individuals who have been affected by possible aerotoxic syndrome.
I first became aware of the issue only a year ago, when, as right hon. and hon. Members of all parties will know, we were busy engaging with our local communities. Whether I was meeting constituents in Ifield ward or on the other side of my constituency in Maidenbower, people were raising this matter with me. It is perhaps not surprising, as Gatwick airport is in my constituency. I am fortunate that my constituency contains the headquarters of Virgin Atlantic and many charter companies, such as TUI Travel. It is also the airport with the largest operations anywhere of easyJet, and of course British Airways flies from there, as do many other airlines. Therefore, unsurprisingly, many people in my constituency work in the aviation industry. What struck me clearly was that this issue was of huge concern to them.
On fortunately, being returned to this place at the last general election, one of the first things that I sought to do was raise the issue of toxicity in cabin air. I was pleased to secure a debate on the Floor of the House in July 2015, and I followed it up with a letter to the Secretary of State for Transport and raised the issue with the Minister with responsibility for aviation, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). I have been grateful for the replies that I have received.
As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde clearly outlined, the vast majority of aircraft fly at a very high altitude and must force the intake of air for passengers and crew. That usually takes place through the engines, right next to where lubricants are often used for the operation of those engines. In the all too many incidents that have been reported to me, it can cause contamination of cabin air. I suspect that that contamination has caused some of the awful illnesses that a number of aviation crew have experienced.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the symptoms can be confused with other illness and are therefore misdiagnosed? Worryingly, although the effects of short exposure are usually reversible, cabin crew who may be exposed more regularly could suffer permanent neurological damage and, as we have heard, it could be fatal.
Yes, I think that is a distinct possibility. As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said, most Members of Parliament are not doctors and are not necessarily medically trained, although there are some notable exceptions, so it is not for us to seek to diagnose. What I was hinting, in the strongest possible terms, is that the symptoms that affect many cabin crew can be confused with other conditions such as Crohn’s disease, which has been mentioned. Also, it seems highly likely to me from the research that I have done on the issue that aerotoxic syndrome is a real health outcome of prolonged exposure to toxic air. The issue therefore deserves the attention of Parliament and of the Department for Transport.
The issue was brought to my attention by two of my constituents, Jakki Purdon and Lynn Perkins, who are both cabin crew on long-haul flights. To the best of my knowledge, “aerotoxic syndrome” was first suggested as a medical term in 1999. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the passage of time, it would be a travesty if an investigation were not convened at the earliest possible opportunity?
Yes. The evidence that I have found is that the issue started to be spoken about slightly before 1999, in the mid-1990s. It is now about 20 years since the issue first started to be identified, which means that we should not lose any more time in having a proper investigation into the issue.
As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said earlier, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the latest type of aircraft not to take in cabin air through the engines, which is welcome. I am pleased that airlines operating from Gatwick airport, such as Thomson and Virgin Atlantic, have ordered 21 Boeing 787 Dreamliners. That is positive for the working environment of cabin crew and pilots on the flight deck, not to mention passengers. However, of course, the vast majority of aircraft on long-haul or short-haul flights still take in air through the engine, so the issue, as well as having grown more current over the last two decades, will be around for a long time unless it is addressed properly.
As I said earlier, I am very grateful to the aviation Minister for the responses I have received from him, and I am encouraged that both the European Aviation Safety Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority are looking into this issue. I understand that they have said that they aim to report on their findings later this year. I encourage the Department for Transport to ensure that both EASA and the CAA follow through on their research into this issue, so that we maintain the pressure on the industry to take it very seriously.
On precisely the issue of the CAA, I will say, briefly, that this matter was brought to my attention by one of my constituents, Mr Dominic Moynihan, whose nephew, Matthew Bass, a long-standing cabin crew member with easyJet, died in 2014 in circumstances that seem to imply aerotoxic syndrome. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the CAA has been rather dilatory in researching, approaching and regulating this matter? I agree with him that the CAA must report back to the public and Parliament as quickly as possible, so that we can move forward and clear up this whole issue.
I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Given the number of suspected incidents that have been reported—as I have already said, even though I am not medically trained I am increasingly convinced about them—and given the length of time that this issue has been known about, I do not think we can lose any more time before we investigate it properly. Therefore, I reiterate what I said a few moments ago, namely, that the CAA and the DFT need to follow up on this issue. It is incumbent on all of us here in Westminster Hall today, and on right hon. and hon. Members across the House, that we remain very focused and diligent, to ensure that this issue is followed up.
I know that many other people want to speak, Mrs Gillan, so, without wanting to take up any more time, I again thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate; I thank the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde for securing it; and I look forward to hearing the remarks of my hon. Friend the aviation Minister. I encourage him to continue the efforts that he has begun making to ensure that this matter is properly investigated, so that no more of my constituents, or indeed anyone who works in the aviation industry around the country or around the world, need suffer the dreadful effects that I believe aerotoxic syndrome has caused.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.
First, I will declare an interest, having been a Unite rep in a previous existence; I remain a member of the union. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for securing this debate, and for his very measured opening speech.
My background is in science; I used to work as a biochemist for the NHS. So I am very wary about jumping to any conclusions; we need to weigh up the evidence. However, I support the request for an independent inquiry into this issue. The evidence is quite compelling and we need to progress. The employer’s duty of care has been talked about, and it is absolutely key to this issue that we assess the evidence that is available, examine the incidents that have occurred and try to establish whether there is a causative effect. We really need to take some action, and I hope that that is what we decide to do at the end of this debate.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) have already talked about cabin air and where it comes from. It is quite significant that the new Boeing 787 uses a different method of supplying cabin air. The air is supplied by electronically driven compressors that take air directly from the atmosphere so there is no contact with the engines; there is no possibility of a seal failing and contaminants from the engine oil getting into the cabin air. One of my constituents, who is an air steward, has suggested to me that this new plane has been developed because it has been recognised that there are issues with the old system of bleed air. Again, however, that is speculation.
I asked precisely the same question of my officials: was it done for that reason? They said, no, it was done for other reasons, not because of the air quality issue. Obviously, however, the effect is that air does not have to pass through the engine. The aircraft was designed for efficiency and that change was one way of making the aircraft more efficient; it was not made in reaction to this bleed air quality issue.
I thank the Minister for that intervention; that is very useful information. It reinforces the point about speculation and causative effects. Obviously, cabin crew say that the air issue was the reason why the 787 was developed with that system. If there is a public inquiry on this matter, I hope that information about that system will form part of the evidence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said that some statistics showed that fume events occurred in one flight in 2,000. One of the statistics that I pulled out is from the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. COT reported in 2007 that fume events occur on one flight in 100, so again there is some dispute over the incidence of these events. There is also anecdotal evidence that fume events occur even more often than that, but they are not being reported. The really surprising thing about all of this is that there are no chemical sensors in the aircraft. The noses of the cabin crew are the only detectors.
My constituent asked me not to give her name, but she was quite happy to talk to me about her experience as a cabin crew member. She described these fume events to me. She said that she has been in cabins when fumes have entered. She has flown for four different airlines and fume events have happened in planes from all four of them. She said to me, “Fumes come in. You smell the oil. It’s not being acknowledged by managers and higher officials in the airline industry when these incidents are reported.” When I spoke to her, she compared the effect of fume events with Gulf war syndrome. With Gulf war syndrome, we had soldiers coming back to the UK with massive neurological problems and it took a very long time for any investigation to be made and for it to occur to somebody that these problems were happening too often to be a coincidence. It is interesting that she made that comparison.
My constituent said to me that all cabin crew want is for this problem to be recognised and acknowledged. Until we have a full investigation, cabin crew will not feel that their employers are doing everything they can to safeguard them while they are at work.
Is part of the issue the lack of training for cabin crew to deal with these incidents when they occur?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. From the research I have done and from the comments of people I have spoken to, I know that that is probably true. My constituent told me, “Smoke hoods are there in the plane if there is a fire or fumes on board.” Until recently, those smoke hoods had been used very rarely, but she told me that crew members were starting to use them because of their concerns about fume events on flights. Again, that is anecdotal evidence, but it shows the real concern out there and highlights an issue with training. These things should not be used, but they are used because crew are fearful for their health. He makes a good point, and I am grateful to him for raising that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and various other Members have spoken about when the incidents started to be reported. My constituent said that she first heard of it 1998, when she started working for an airline. She said that cabin crew were talking about fume incidents even then.
Several hon. Members have mentioned the cases in which deaths unfortunately occurred, possibly as a result of aerotoxic syndrome. I, too, first became aware of the issue at a Unite briefing, where the parents of Matt Bass described what happened to their son. His symptoms appeared to be fairly non-specific, but it was reported that he was fatigued. He went down to rest and tragically he never woke up. There is a feeling that his symptoms were consistent with exposure to organophosphates, which are the chemicals that leak out occasionally in the bleed air.
It is worth informing the Chamber that Matthew Bass had been an air worker for 15 years, so the effects were probably cumulative.
That is an important point. While the average member of the public goes on a flight perhaps twice a year—luckier people might fly more frequently than that—cabin crew have constant exposure. Working as cabin crew is a hard job. The hours are unsocial and it is a difficult environment to work in. I think most of them would probably expect not to feel 100% well most of the time. That colours the whole issue with the health of cabin crew. Some of the symptoms of so-called aerotoxic syndrome are non-specific and could easily be put down to the stresses and strains of the job, and that has served to confuse the issue.
The other prominent case, as has already been mentioned, was the pilot Richard Westgate, who sadly died in 2012. The coroner who dealt with Richard’s case issued a report that detailed five concerns, which I will go through because they are relevant to the debate. Those concerns were: that organophosphate compounds are present in aircraft cabin air; that the occupants of aircraft cabins are exposed to organophosphate compounds with consequential damage to their health; that impairment to the health of those controlling aircraft may lead to the death of occupants; that there is no real-time monitoring to detect such compounds in cabin air; and that no account is taken of genetic variation, which may render humans susceptible to exposure. That final point is important. There is a school of thought that not everyone is susceptible to organophosphate compounds and that there may be an element of genetic variation and genetic susceptibility, and I hope that that will be covered in any independent inquiry.
I am interested in the hon. Lady’s comments on the coroner’s report. When I looked into the issue, I noted that the responses of British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority to the report have not been made public. Does she agree that it would be useful if that information was made public, because what is clearly lacking in this whole picture is facts?
Like the hon. Lady, I could not find any responses to the coroner’s report. She is absolutely right. We are here to establish the facts, to bring them together, to weigh up the evidence and to come to a scientific conclusion.
I want to talk a little more about Richard Westgate’s case. He was treated by Dr Michel Mulder, a specialist aviation doctor. He believes that Richard Westgate fell into the category for aerotoxic syndrome. Richard became a commercial pilot in 1998. He voluntarily grounded himself in 2011 after suffering whiplash in a car crash, but by that time he had already become concerned about his health and his memory. He was suffering from persistent headaches, chronic fatigue, loss of confidence and mood swings. Like many pilots, he failed to tell his employer for fear of losing his job. That is a key issue. We have to encourage our cabin staff and airline pilots to speak up if they are concerned about their health. I can understand the fear of losing their job, but I am sure most airlines are good employers, and we need to give all staff the confidence to express concerns without fear of any punitive measures being taken against them.
Richard sought private medical advice so that he would avoid any blemishes on his health record, and he was treated by Dr Mulder. Interestingly, Dr Mulder said that Richard had been misdiagnosed with depression. He said:
“So many pilots are misdiagnosed because there is so little awareness of aerotoxic syndrome.”
Dr Mulder obviously believes that aerotoxic syndrome exists, and I hope his evidence would form part of any sort of independent inquiry.
I want to touch on organophosphate poisoning. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) is no longer in her place, but she made comparisons between aerotoxic syndrome and organophosphate poisoning caused by sheep dip chemicals, which is quite common in farmers. It is interesting that the described symptoms of aerotoxic syndrome and sheep dip poisoning are similar. That link was discovered by Dr Peter Julu, an autonomic neurophysiologist, when he was doing some work on sheep dips for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Coincidentally, he had several pilots referred to him at the same time who were suffering from unexplained illness. Dr Julu said:
“To my amazement, the kind of symptoms and findings I was getting from farmers was very similar to the pilots, yet occupationally they couldn’t be more diverse.”
I found it interesting that those two completely different jobs have a common link. The issue with organophosphates is that they attack the autonomic nervous system, including the brain stem. That part of the nervous system deals with emotion and short-term memory. Significantly, it affects an important group of neurotransmitters, including serotonin, and that explains the incidence of depression.
I reinforce the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde made. Unite is pursuing 60 health and safety cases related to toxic air. There is dispute over the causative link between health problems and the quality of cabin air, and we need further evidence to confirm a causative link. There is insufficient research into the matter. I also echo his requests for an independent public inquiry, enforced monitoring and testing of exposure levels and, finally, mandatory reporting of fume events.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this debate and on the fine way he set out and shaped the discussion. He explained a lot of the technical detail and referred very appropriately to the coroners’ reports. He also highlighted, as did the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), the fact that at the heart of the matter are a lot of personal tragedies of which people around the Chamber will be aware. Like my hon. Friend, I have a close interest in Gatwick airport, which borders my constituency of Horsham. As the Minister knows from other discussions, that can occasionally be a mixed blessing, but I am delighted to say that it means a large number of aircrew and retired aircrew live in my constituency. It is a great pleasure to represent them.
I knew nothing of this issue prior to my election to Parliament, but I have been shocked by the number of people coming forward, some with very obvious medical issues, who have apparently suffered from aerotoxic syndrome. It comes as no surprise to hear that Unite is currently dealing with some 61 cases. I am fortunate to have in my constituency Captain Tristan Lorraine, who over 15 years has devoted a lot of study to this worrying condition. I am grateful to him for his support and willingness to share his findings.
Like other Members, I am no GP, but it seems apparent that there is significant evidence that aerotoxic syndrome exists and is a real condition. One constituent wrote to me:
“I was exposed to contaminated air. These exposures were notified to the Government regulator. I presented my medical reports to the Civil Aviation Authority…the CAA accepted the reports and revoked my medical certificate to fly without asking for any further opinion. British Airways retired me on ill-health grounds.”
Given that that is what is happening in practice to those who have suffered from contaminated air, and that that is the reaction of those in the know, I am mystified as to why successive authorities have consistently not found any long-term effects from contaminated air. I am no conspiracy theorist and I understand that the Government and others have in good faith relied on academic work on the impact of the relevant chemicals. Nevertheless, as we are all aware, we are talking about complex and varying combinations of chemicals.
After earlier reports of contaminated air in cabins, the Countess of Mar asked the then Minister, Lord Davies of Oldham:
“What exposure standards currently apply to any synergistic effects of simultaneous exposure to numerous chemicals which may be experienced by aircraft passengers and crew during a contaminated air event in a reduced pressure environment?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 October 2005; Vol. 674, c. WA167.]
The Minister replied: “None.” That parliamentary question was asked and answered more than 10 years ago. I believe that since then, four reports have been sent to the independent Committee on Toxicity. The Civil Aviation Authority found,
“no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible acute and long term health effects.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said, the European Aviation Safety Agency is due to present a report on in-flight cabin air measurement in the autumn, and we look forward to seeing and studying it. Notwithstanding all the reports, aircrew in particular, and others, appear to suffer ill effects as a result of engine bleeds, which have been linked by coroners’ reports and others to the circumstances we are discussing. Aside from hard-working crew members who are clearly at regular risk, I am concerned that the travelling public, the unborn and the young are being exposed to a complex cocktail of chemicals about which there is clearly an element of doubt. I do not for one second question the integrity of the reports or, indeed, of those who have received them, and unlike the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) I am certainly no biochemist, but we are all acutely aware of substances in the workplace—including tobacco, asbestos and organophosphates—for which it took years to establish that positive link to ill health to which the CAA refers.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde referred to international solutions, and he is of course right. He also referred to the Boeing Dreamliners, and I was delighted to hear the Minister’s intervention on the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, because if the Dreamliner solution not only solves this problem but is more efficient, that is a very positive solution indeed. We all know that engine bleeds happen, and that the technology exists to prevent them. This is a genuine, ongoing source of concern. Does the Minister agree that we have every right to assume that the precautionary principle should apply in this area?
I should declare that I have a few friends in the airline industry, and I also take the occasional flight, so toxic air on planes is of interest to me. I am also a member of Unite and GMB. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for his excellent opening speech.
One of my friends who works in the airline industry consistently has hay fever-like symptoms all year round, even when there is no pollen in the air. Having listened to the debate so far, I wonder whether some of that might be a symptom of his working environment. I, too, am no expert on this issue, but I have read through some of the paperwork and information that was presented to me. A 2011 report by Cranfield University for the Department for Transport found that there were no pollutants in aircraft exceeding the available health and safety standards, but those standards are measured differently. They are measured with regard to those of us on the ground and do not take into consideration people in an aircraft at high altitude, where pollutants will obviously have a different effect. It worries me that there is no proper measure of what exactly is going on in aircraft.
As has been mentioned, the European Aviation Safety Agency will be reporting in October 2016 on the suitable implementation of measures to tackle the problem. It is great that we have heard from the Minister that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s new design is not only to avoid contaminating the air supply. As I understand it, the bleed-free design was introduced in the ’50s and ’60s because it delivered a considerable reduction in fuel consumption. It was considered good for the overall environment because it used less fuel to fly.
It is strange that the cumulative effect of pollutants in aircraft on those working in the industry has yet to be measured, because employers have a responsibility to their employees, as is established in law. Cabin crews and pilots deserve to be working in the best possible environment. After all, they ensure that we get from A to B safely and make our journey as pleasant as possible. The least we can do in this House is to ensure that they have a safe working environment.
One possible solution that has been suggested by the Aerotoxic Association is for less toxic oil formulations to be used. That would lead to improvements in cabin air quality. Does the hon. Lady agree that although that would not fully address the issue, it should be considered as a measure to be taken while an inquiry is undertaken?
I absolutely agree. It might be a case of asking what we can do to restrict the poisonous fumes and toxic air that are coming into the plane. The airline industry should look into that.
We know that toxins such as carbon monoxide are invisible and odourless, so the only way we can really find out what is going on in an aircraft is to measure what is going on in real time, not after the plane has landed. I do not think that would be too costly. Instead of all the inconclusive reports that have been written, it probably would have made more sense to measure the air on planes in the first instance and do a report based on the findings.
Big industry normally does a cost analysis of how much something costs versus how many people might die as a consequence of certain events. However, the issue is not only the people who tragically die after toxic air situations but those pilots who, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), end up losing their licence. Having dated a pilot, I know that the constant threat of being tested and the fear of losing their licence is frightening.
The British Airline Pilots Association sought to attract UK airline support for the completely independent US multimillion-dollar Occupational Health Research Consortium in Aviation—a bit of a mouthful—but was given a runaround on the report and was told to go to the Department for Transport. It is strange that the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment produced a report without taking any independent evidence or evidence from Bupa, which initiated the drive for the report. Will the Minister commit, under the Freedom of Information Act, to make public the action that has been taken to address the responses to the report, of Bupa, the Transport and General Workers Union and Unite? We need transparency. We all surely want the same thing: a safe environment for crew members and travellers. It would therefore be a good thing to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act everything that has happened.
Previous Governments also failed on this issue, but given that experiences are being shared online and on social media, the situation has become urgent. As we have heard, Unite is pursuing several cases. Employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means that they should not just address whether such substances exist but, as has been said, prevent leakages into the air cabin.
Much has been said about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is great that the technology is moving forward. The Dreamliner does not use the bleed-air system, so this problem will not occur. The Government cannot force people to purchase such aeroplanes, so what can we do to make the work environment safer until all airlines roll out aeroplanes that do not use the bleed-air system?
I call on the Minister to ensure that the UK stipulates that a cabin air monitoring and detection system must be installed in any aircraft with bleed technology. Airline companies should be obliged to release the data unedited, so that the problem can be fully investigated. I am concerned about the health of cabin crews, pilots and friends and family members who fly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on opening this debate so well? All the contributions have been incredibly positive in addressing this important issue. I, too, was at the meeting. It was humbling to hear from Mr Bass in January, when he presented us with a moving account of what happened to his son Matt, who died so tragically at the age of just 34. He deserves answers; he deserves action.
I, too, declare an interest as a member of Unite and a former national official of the union, but I also had a dual career. I was a clinician and worked in the interface between respiratory and neurological medicine, so I very much understand the clinical presentations that have been described by many cabin crew staff.
Matt had spent 10 years as a flight attendant. He was a young man. Following a shift, he had gone out to socialise with his friends, like so many others. He was fatigued, so he went to rest on the sofa. He never woke up. In fact, the organophosphates that he was exposed to during his career had caused him to feel unwell for some time. He was not to know why; he was not to know that they could kill him. The job he loved could have been slowly poisoning his system. We know this is true for the 61 cases that Unite is currently pursuing. As the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) said, this could well be a global issue; therefore, the number of cases is unknown.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, in addition to needing greater evidence-gathering, we should perhaps develop routine blood testing to measure the effects on cabin crew?
It is important that proper screening is introduced—obviously the methods of screening need to be determined—thereby ensuring that cabin crew staff have proper occupational health support. The availability of those health services is vital.
We have also heard how long these symptoms have been recognised in the aviation industry. Indeed, my research showed that it was realised in 1954 that using air in this way with jet engines can result in gases escaping and coming into planes’ air systems, so we can establish that this has been recognised as a long-term issue, whatever date that was first known. We have also heard today about the report from the senior coroner, who has clearly established, as a matter of fact, that organophosphates are present in aircraft cabins and therefore can have a detrimental impact on the health of those who occupy that space.
It is important to understand who this issue could affect. We have talked about the cabin crew staff, but pilots and frequent fliers could also be exposed to the cumulative risk from such gases. Also, we are talking not just about the civilian airline industry, but about what is happening with military aircraft, where people are already putting their lives on the line. Could there be a risk for our service personnel as well? It would be interesting to know what work is being done to protect members of the RAF.
Before moving on, I want to thank the Unite the union health and safety reps, who are at the forefront of taking forward these issues, many in their own time, but all serving their fellow colleagues day in, day out, asking very difficult questions of their employers. It is to be regretted that they have been unable to find an industrial solution to this problem or get a direct response from the airline industry. That is why it is so important that they brought to the attention of parliamentarians the plight of people working in the industry. It is absolutely right that we support them in that. Indeed, the way in which this serious issue of concern was raised and presented to parliamentarians shows—if I may say so in this debate—a really responsible use of the political levy, which is what unions continually do. We should note that the current attack on the trade union political levy is totally inappropriate, because without it we might not be having these kinds of debate in this House.
I will now return to the matter under consideration. What is really shocking about this debate is that we are talking about a safety-critical industry—one that works to ensure the greater safety of those who work in and use it. In such a safety-critical industry, where lives could be put at risk, we therefore need to ensure that measures are taken as a matter of urgency. I know there has been a long, drawn-out debate, but this is a matter of urgency, because it may only take a pilot to be poisoned during a journey for there to be fatalities. We already understand that lives have been lost, but how many more need to be taken before action is taken? Therefore, I urge that we move forward in addressing this issue.
We know that there are poisonous gases that we experience in all sorts of places in our environment. The complete, holistic impact that that has on our lives is not yet understand, but what has been brought to the fore is the fact that these fume events are occurring frequently. I, too, had the statistic of one in 100 instances, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), but the research suggested there could be even more. None of us know, because we do not have the detection systems to give us that information. What we do know is that the impact is very serious indeed.
The toxicity of organophosphates inhibits enzymes. That inhibits the neurotransmitters in our nervous system and at the neuromuscular junctions from operating fully, and that is the reason for some of the symptoms we see, such as drowsiness, along with some of the neurological impact and the impact on the autonomic nervous system. Our red blood cells, too, are affected, so exposure, as we would expect, will affect people in different ways, whether because of their genetic make-up, or even their body mass index or other factors. The important thing to do is to carry out research so that we have a good understanding of why people experience the different symptoms.
The symptoms can range from nausea and other gastroenterological conditions, through respiratory problems to the fatigue-type syndromes—the sickness syndromes—that are typically experienced. Often, people would not relate that to their work environment, and might think that they just feel under the weather, but continual exposure to such risk can build up toxicity over a period of time, thereby causing neurological injury.
We know—we have heard about this in quite a lot of detail—how those gases come into aircraft cabins, but what stood out for me was that it is often because of the failure of the seals on aircraft. Therefore, it is important that we ensure that the maintenance programmes of these aircraft are brought into check, because we have also heard how developments in the 787 Dreamliner aircraft have shown that that does not have to be the case with new designs.
I want to conclude by listing some of the things that I believe could be done to improve the aircraft environment for staff and public. First, as we have heard, there is monitoring. Monitoring devices would not be an expensive way of getting information and also ensuring that staff are kept safe as they go about their daily duties of keeping us safe in aircraft. I make a plea that we should put proper monitoring devices on aircraft, but also ensure that there are proper alerts when fume events happen, so that cabin crew can take the appropriate action to safeguard themselves and, obviously, the people they are there to serve.
We have also heard about reporting, which is so important. We know that it is absolutely at the centre of health and safety legislation, so that we can understand the prevalence of an issue. I would therefore ask that reporting be put at the forefront. We have also heard about the independent inquiry—which is so important as well—and the need for research into the impact of toxicity on individuals. I would also like to ask about the opportunities for greater engineering development. We know that filtration systems can be developed to filter out such air, so I would urge the Minister to make resources available for research into this area, to develop filtration systems that can provide the protections we need on existing aircraft, but also to look at the design of future aircraft.
I have already mentioned the need for good health checks and making sure that occupational health support is made available for staff, but we also need to ensure that the public are aware of the risks as they take their flights, so that they are conscious, if they detect any symptoms themselves, of what support they need, should such an occurrence arise. Finally, we know that the oxygen supply in cabins comes mixed with cabin air, which could well be toxic. Is it possible to look into how to get cleaner air into that oxygen supply, so that, should there be a serious escape of fumes, we know that we have a safe source of air to inhale during the flight?
Matt Bass was one of so many people in the airline industry who put our lives ahead of their own, day to day, serving us. Tragically, he lost his life. I do not want there to be another like Matt Bass, so I urge positive action today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Gillan.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the debate and all Members who supported the application for one. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for the professional and comprehensive way he put forward the case, and to the contributions of both Government and Opposition Members, in particular that of the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), who I suspect has not got the credit he deserves for raising the issue. The proposals and suggestions have been extraordinarily helpful, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
I must declare my interest as chair of the Unite group in Parliament. I am a proud member of Unite and I feel, as my colleagues do, that this is an important part of the work we do for our members and their families. I also pay tribute to Matt Bass’s parents, Charlie and Fiona, who might be listening to the debate today. I had the great privilege of meeting them and some Unite members who are air crew. At a meeting in Parliament, they relayed to us their personal experiences and concerns.
I thank my trade union, Unite, for its excellent and detailed briefing on such an important issue, and a number of Members have emphasised some specific aspects. It is important to recognise the valuable work of Unite in investigating concerns and protecting passengers and cabin crew from toxic fume events. I am concerned that airlines, regulators and, with due respect to the Minister, Governments do not seem to be terribly active in considering contaminated cabin air.
It would be remiss of me not to remind people—the general public who are listening to the debate or reading it in Hansard—that Unite has established a fume event register and a helpline, which are available through the website. Given the lack of any official reporting, I hope that when air crew and members of the public who are frequent flyers feel that there has been such an incident, they will use the Unite register to report it. We need the evidence and an objective assessment. We need public and cabin crew affected by fume events to come forward and identify them.
If we are not successful in convincing the Government to take action and to investigate the matter fully, we will need evidence because the only other option for people is to seek legal redress. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) mentioned, Unite is taking up the case of 61 of our members in relation to this issue. Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) suggested that there was not a causal link between symptoms and exposure, but I am old enough to remember the arguments made against any causal link between smoking and lung cancer, or exposure to asbestos and the development of mesothelioma and asbestosis. I fully understand the reluctance of the industry to have an investigation, because of the potential costs involved, but it is beholden on us and the Minister in particular to look into such a link with all seriousness.
I think I might have misheard the hon. Gentleman, but, if not, I would not want the record to suggest that I think there is no causal link—I am concerned that there might be. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to asbestosis and we have also heard about organophosphates. I think there may be a causal link, and I am keen that the precautionary principle applies until we get really hard evidence that there is not. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am genuinely concerned.
I am grateful for that intervention; I did not mean to misrepresent the hon. Gentleman’s position. It is important that we look at evidence. Considerable pressure is building to have a proper investigation and to make an objective assessment as to whether there is a causative link between the symptoms, which are wide and various—I do not propose to go into them again because other Members have already done that—and exposure to toxic air fumes that have come from engines through bleed air systems.
Other Members have referred to the new generation Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which uses bleed-free systems. Those systems are not an industry standard, nor does Boeing’s decision seem to mark the beginning of a transition to a safer system. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, because, apart from anything else, Unite has a substantial number of members involved in the aviation industry—not just flight and aircraft maintenance crew but those working in the manufacture of aircraft components and engines. I do not seek to damage confidence in the industry, but it is important that we ensure that this safety-critical industry enjoys complete confidence and we have those necessary assurances and investigations.
I will give way to my friend, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens).
Is there not also confusion about which body is responsible for occupational health and safety? It seems to be split between the Civil Aviation Authority and the Health and Safety Executive, and that is confusing in terms of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002—the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with them—which the CAA has denied responsibility for.
That is a good point. I hope that the Minister will reflect on it and perhaps refer to it in his response.
I am afraid that we do not have a lot of information on the frequency of these events in the United Kingdom. The much-criticised UK Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment estimated that smoke and fume events are reported by pilots in one in every 100 flights—I think that was previously mentioned—but those are conservative estimates. If there is under-reporting, as many seem to believe anecdotally, that might be another reason why many fume events are not being investigated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) mentioned, it is important to monitor in real time rather than bring portable equipment on to aircraft when they have landed.
I understand that UK fleet figures are not available—if the Minister does have such figures, I am happy to take an intervention from him to put them on the record—but what was initially thought to be quite a rare event anecdotally seems to be happening far too often. Figures available from the United States are quite alarming, although they have many more aircraft and flights. Clearly exposure to contaminated bleed air can have a serious impact on health, particularly for cabin crew, who are at greater risk of exposure and of cumulative effects.
We have already heard about the coroner’s letter following the sad death of pilot Richard Westgate and the regulation 28 report, so I do not intend to go into that. However, it seems to be an omission that there is nothing on the public record. We have heard quotes from the Civil Aviation Authority response to that letter, but we have not seen the full response. The CAA said that
“there is no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible acute and long-term health effects”.
Although it did conclude that
“such a link cannot be excluded.”
I am not sure what good that is. It seems to me that this issue is crying out for some further research and evidence so that we can either establish a link or rule it out.
I am prepared to concede that there is a knowledge gap, but the industry and regulators are relying on a system of denial rather than fitting the detection systems required to collect evidence on the true number and concentration of fume events. I do not believe that the industry—or the Government for that matter—would deny the existence of fume events. Again, the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe they also accept that fume events are detrimental to health. While they may disagree on the extent of such impacts, I ask the Minister to support calls for an independent inquiry into the risks and hazards associated with contaminated air.
We need monitoring and detection systems for cabin air to be introduced so that we can ascertain the true extent of the problem. We also need a better system to diagnose, treat and compensate workers whose health and wellbeing has been compromised and damaged by fume events. Finally, all future aircraft should be designed to be bleed-free. If there is a shred of doubt about there being cumulative, long-term adverse effects on health, surely that is a sensible way to proceed when drawing up design specifications. In the meantime, it is possible to mitigate any effects, perhaps by looking at maintenance schedules, because aircraft that are not maintained to such a high standard are more likely to be subject to fume events as seals go—that is the nature of a mechanical design. Things could therefore be done; indeed, engine oils and hydraulic fluids could be reformulated to minimise potential adverse effects on health.
Ultimately, we need airlines to step up to the plate and accept their responsibilities and duty of care to employees and passengers. If not them, regulators need to demand changes, and detection systems should be fitted to seek further evidence on fume events. If not the airlines or the regulators, the Minister and the Government must take charge. Until such time, I do not believe any of us—the travelling public or indeed air crew—can say with confidence that air travel is completely risk-free and that fume events are not a risk to public health.
I do not think that any other Members are seeking to catch my eye, so we will move to the wind-ups.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mrs Gillan. I start by giving credit to the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) and for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) for securing the debate on this important issue. I think it has been a real eye-opener for many Members, including me. Despite having an interest in the aviation industry and having Glasgow airport—UK airport of the year—in my constituency, I was not aware until those hon. Members appeared before the Backbench Business Committee that the air we breathe in aircraft cabins is compressed air supplied from the engines.
We have heard some interesting and substantive points from many Members. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, who led off, compared the safeguards put in place for asbestos with the lack of safeguards for aerotoxins and indeed the lack of official recognition of health repercussions. He also listed the symptoms involved and said that one purpose of the debate was to raise the issue’s profile. He praised Unite’s work on this issue over many years and spoke about the lack of detection systems on board aircraft. I think we can all agree that such systems should come into force in the next few years.
The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) paid great tribute to his former constituent, Matthew Bass. The hon. Gentleman outlined his work in trying to get this issue a much higher profile than it has had until now and he supported calls for an inquiry. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to that.
The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) asked us to assess all the available evidence and come to the obvious conclusion that there should be an independent inquiry. She spoke keenly about the safety of the crew on board aircraft, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) made the point that training in this area was perhaps lacking. The hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton listed the five concerns noted by the coroner in relation to the death of the pilot Richard Westgate, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) called for both the responses from the CAA and British Airways to the coroner’s report to be made public, because they do not appear to be public at the moment.
The hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) spoke about his lack of awareness of the issue before being elected. However, he said that due to his constituency’s proximity to Gatwick, a number of current and retired aircrew have been in touch, and he set out one such constituent’s case. He also said that he was looking forward to the European Aviation Safety Agency’s report, which is due shortly.
The hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned the Cranfield University report that claimed that safe limits were not exceeded, but said that there were real problems with the work, as it tested effects at ground level, not in a pressurised altitude setting.
[Mr David Hanson in the Chair]
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) perhaps understands better than most Members present the health issues involved, given her background. She reminded us that this was a safety concern as far as back as the ’50s and raised the Government’s attack on the trade union levy.
The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) paid tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Crawley and that of Unite, which offers information and assistance to those in need of it. He also rightly complained that fume events are not recorded.
Other Members have contributed and raised concerns from constituents, including my hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire, for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for East Lothian (George Kerevan).
The 8.7 million passengers who fly through Glasgow airport annually place their trust in the pilots and airline crew. The staff who work in the air industry perform an important job and it is only appropriate that we pay tribute to the work that they do. As well as securing the safety of our passengers, it is vital that we provide safety to the thousands who work in our airline industry. We acknowledge and are deeply concerned about the health problems that have been reported by cabin crew and pilots due to the potentially toxic air that can be present in commercial aircraft during so-called fume events.
I have received a number of emails from local constituents who work as cabin crew, airline staff and pilots, and they have alerted me to some of the health effects that have been caused to some of their colleagues, including blurred vision, vomiting, shortness in breathing and seizures, among many other health issues. Despite the excellent work of the Aerotoxic Association, there is still very little information and awareness of aerotoxic syndrome.
We have heard about the following process from Members, but it bears repeating: an aircraft cabin has to be pressurised with sufficient air pressure to allow passengers to breathe comfortably at the altitudes at which jet airliners fly. For that, a supply of warm compressed air is required, which is supplied by the engine. The danger arises when there is an engine oil seal failure and substances from an aircraft’s engine oil supply leak into the cabin through bleed air from the engine, causing so-called aerotoxic syndrome. That is said to affect one in every 2,000 flights and despite the relatively low numbers, aerotoxic syndrome could potentially affect anyone—pilots, cabin crew or passengers.
The Aerotoxic Association stated that not enough is being done to protect those who are affected when a fume event occurs. I have been advised that airlines are supposedly not providing adequate safety measures to those who are in a cabin when the cabin air has been contaminated. The drop-down masks are not useful in providing any form of protection when a fume event occurs, as we have heard.
The lack of awareness of this issue would suggest that there is conflicting evidence on aerotoxic syndrome. However, the Aerotoxic Association stated that numerous scientific studies provide clear evidence on contaminated air being the cause of chronic health problems. In addition, the most recent UK Government report on this issue, from the Committee on Toxicity, stated that contaminated air is a serious problem that can cause severe health implications for those affected. That was supported by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee when it claimed that an illness, whether caused by toxicity or nocebo effect, can be severely disabling.
It would appear that there is growing acceptance of the health problems that contaminated air can have on those exposed to it. Naturally, the question that we should now be asking is: what is being done to address the problem? The Government appear to want to commission further evidence into the issue of contaminated air and if possible, look at tackling the issue on an international level. I welcome the fact that the Government, through the CAA, have outlined their intentions to continue to monitor the situation; however, there is only so much time that we can continue to monitor the effect of contaminated air without taking proper action against it.
I have great sympathy for the calls being made by Unite and others, who are demanding that an independent public inquiry is commissioned to look into cabin air safety and the potential health effects. The Government’s committing to that would send a strong message on how concerned we are about aerotoxic syndrome, and any recommendations from such a public inquiry would carry stronger weight for further action to be taken. If the Government are unwilling at this stage to acquiesce to such an inquiry, may I ask the Minister if they could, at the very least, make this a much higher-priority issue than it appears to be at the moment?
Mrs Gillan, we owe it to the cabin crew and pilots to take proper action—[Interruption.] Mr Hanson, I do apologise—this is what happens when you read out a speech and don’t look up! We owe it to the cabin crew and pilots to take proper action to understand fully the health problems that can arise from being exposed to contaminated cabin air. We also owe it to the memory of Matthew Bass who, as we have heard, unfortunately passed away in January 2014 as a result of chronic exposure to organophosphates.
We all travel by air—following this debate, I am heading to Gatwick—and we place great trust in the airline staff. We owe it to those working in the industry to offer that same level of safety to them, and I trust that the Government will take the appropriate and just action to limit the effects of aerotoxic syndrome.
Mr Hanson, I welcome you to the Chair. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing the debate, as well as to my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), who supported him in his application to the Backbench Business Committee. I thank that Committee for granting this very important debate.
I also thank all hon. Members from both sides of the House who have contributed today. I counted 12, taking into account interventions and speeches, which shows the importance that Members attach to this issue. We heard speeches from the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), as well as from my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who both brought scientific expertise to the debate, which was very welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central spoke with a lot of personal knowledge of this issue from her involvement in the aviation industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) spoke with a great deal of passion. Like my hon. Friend the Member for York Central, he emphasised the importance of trade unions being able to bring these kinds of issues to the House’s attention and talked about that being an important part of democracy.
The aviation industry and the aviation sector is a key pillar of our economy, but it is more than that, even though that is important enough in its own right; travel by air has made our world a smaller place. It fosters direct face-to-face contact and understanding between peoples across the globe in a way that no other mode of travel ever has. That is why it is right that we pay tribute today to those who work in the civil aviation sector, on the ground as well as in the air.
However, this debate really does raise genuine welfare concerns, particularly for cabin crew and pilots: some of the people on whom we rely to get comfortably and safely to our destinations. Their work, as many hon. Members have said, is far from easy. Fatigue is regularly among the top concerns of staff in the air, and we know that that is an underlying but ever-growing problem. We also appreciate the impact that their work can have on their family life.
Despite all those pressures, however, what is clear is that air crew do the job because they love it, and two such people were Richard Westgate and Matt Bass. I want to join the tributes to their families and to Unite. I declare myself a proud member of Unite and draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is right to recognise that parts of the media have tried to move the issue up the public agenda. It has received attention from, for example, BBC’s “Victoria Derbyshire” programme and ITN’s “Tonight” programme.
All those people and institutions are right in saying that key unanswered questions remain: on research into air fume events, monitoring and detection systems, and awareness, education and diagnosis of symptoms. The Government’s responsibility is to do all they can to ensure the safety of passengers and crew alike. The existence of regulators is important, but does not take away that overall responsibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde said, we know from the asbestos issue that what authorities often believe for a long time to be the case does not always turn out to be correct.
We know that many modern aircraft use bleed-air systems—that has been referred to many times in this debate—to supply air to the cabin, but we also know that faults with engine seals and seepage can lead to contaminated fumes containing toxins. What is not crystal clear is the implication of short and long-term exposure to contaminated air and its links to aerotoxic syndrome which, given the range of systems, is clearly difficult to diagnose. However, there are some things we already know. The coroner’s report on the death of Richard Westgate recognised:
“symptoms consistent with chronic exposure to organophosphates.”
We know that Matt Bass shared similar symptoms. The inquest into his death is ongoing. We also know that Unite is pursuing some 61 individual cases. The question is real: is aerotoxic syndrome an occupational illness?
A number of Members today have drawn attention to reports and position papers produced by the Committee on Toxicity and how its findings have been interpreted. There is a clear distinction between saying there is no evidence of aerotoxic syndrome, as some suggest, and saying that there is not enough evidence to prove that link. As Professor Alan Boobis, the Committee’s chair, said in his interview on ITN’s “Tonight” programme last year:
“We made proposals for research that could be pursued…as far as I know, no one came back.”
The Association of Flight Attendants also called for further research in its critique of the committee’s 2007 report, in which it stated that
“there is a need for a large scale sampling study.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde rightly called for an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of these things, and that call has been echoed by others. The Minister will no doubt say that the UK is supporting an international approach for research through the European Aviation Safety Agency. That is important, and I understand that the agency will publish a preliminary report in the autumn. It is also important to know exactly what that is about and who is doing it. I understand that the agency has contracted out the work; in that context, will the Minister confirm the independence of the bodies commissioned to do that study and who was consulted on the choice of contractor? If he does not have the information now, I understand, and perhaps he will write to me.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. I follows on from four pieces of research in the UK, most notably that by Cranfield University, so it is not as if we have not already carried out a lot of work in the UK.
I am grateful to the Minister for that information, but I want to press him on EASA’s study and its remit. His letter in November 2015 to the Chair of the Transport Committee suggests that EASA is currently looking at what equipment should be put in place to undertake cockpit and cabin air measurements in future and will report in the autumn. That is important, and I will come back to it in a moment. I shall be grateful if the Minister will confirm whether the current EASA project has any remit to survey existing evidence from inquiries and studies—he mentioned some of them—whether from the UK, from other parts of Europe, international or in, for example, Australia.
Those inquiries and studies of air cabin safety have happened already. If the EASA does not have a remit to look at those other studies and can look only at monitoring for the future, should the Minister not ensure that someone is doing that work already? If it is happening, that is great, but it would be useful to know who is doing it. If it is not happening, why not? A number of hon. Members have mentioned the importance of the precautionary principle, which we need to apply in this case. The state has a duty of care.
On research, I have been told that no toxicity studies have reflected the real-life atmospheric pressure and temperature levels of planes at altitude. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central made this point. To me, that says that we simply do not know the synergistic effects and impact of prolonged exposure. Understanding that is critical if we are to establish whether this is an occupational disease. Will the Minister tell me whether I am right and, if I am, who will do that study and who will put in place those tests on aircraft in flight?
Whatever else is or is not being done, it seems from what the Minister said in his letter to the Chair of the Transport Committee in November 2015 that EASA is looking into the use of monitoring equipment, and that is important. It is vital to improve the data available for research. There are already legal requirements for cabin air to adhere to set levels of, for example, carbon dioxide and other toxins, but without appropriate detection equipment in place how do we know whether those standards are being met? Will the Minister say whether systems are available that could be put on aircraft? If there are, why are they not on aircraft and what can we do to ensure that that happens from now on?
No one denies that the fume events occur, but we do not know the true extent to which contaminated air incidents happen, as we have heard time and again today. Without monitoring, it is up to aircraft crew to report incidents. As was also said today, it is down to the noses of air crew. That makes it equally important that they receive adequate awareness training to detect leaks, whether by smell or other means. It is not unreasonable to suggest, as various hon. Members have, that pilots and cabin crew may be reluctant to report, particularly in the highly competitive environments in which airlines now operate, what they suspect could be minor instances, especially given the possible implications for airlines and perhaps for their own professional interests.
The 2008 ASA critique of the Committee on Toxicity also noted that the rate and reliability of reports coming in were flawed. So what steps are the Government taking with the regulators to ensure that awareness training is in place and that reporting is expected and enforced?
Finally, on the types of aircraft, what guidance does the Minister have on whether certain aircraft are particularly susceptible to fume events? In line with the precautionary principle that Members from all parties have said we need to adopt, where there is now bleed-free architecture available, what steps can we take to ensure that all future aircraft built adopt that technology? I am glad that the Minister asked his civil servants whether there was any link with cabin air in the design of the 787 Dreamliner. They told him that the design was about efficiency, not cabin air. I am sure it was partly about efficiency, but will the Minister go back to them and ask them to check whether representations were made and whether the Federal Aviation Administration talked about air quality in cabins being a factor in the design of bleed-free engines?
I hope the Minister will address the questions that all hon. Members have raised today. We owe it to Richard Westgate and Matt Bass, and to their families. We owe it to cabin crews and pilots themselves. Because all of us are in this category as well, we owe it to the travelling public, the passengers. We need to get to the bottom of this without further delay.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) on securing this debate about cabin air safety and aerotoxic syndrome. I should also declare an interest as a member of a union that has members who have been involved with OP toxicity issues. As a member of the National Farmers Union, I have dipped many thousands of sheep and used chemicals at many thousands of times the concentration of the ones we are talking about in this debate. Also, I have two friends who have suffered the sorts of symptoms that we have heard described today: chronic fatigue and sickness and so on.
The Minister is making a good point. In fact, the issue was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). Does he accept that the problem is the regular, continuous exposure to various levels, whereas sheep dipping, even though it was done without proper protection initially—he can correct me if I am wrong—would presumably be for a limited period? It would not be every day in someone’s working life on the farm.
I will go on to describe the levels that those in aircraft cabins are likely to be exposed to under normal operations when a fume event has not taken place. However, as I was saying, neither of my two friends who are suffering from career-finishing symptoms—they are not able to work—had been involved in either the aviation industry or in agriculture. I suspect that if they had been involved in agriculture, I would have been asking questions about whether their exposure to sheep dip or to other agrochemicals may have been to blame. Similarly, if they had been in the aviation industry, I would perhaps be asking the same questions.
The Government take the health and air safety of passengers and crew extremely seriously. The United Kingdom is recognised throughout the global aviation community for its high standard and excellent record of safety in commercial aviation. I must make it clear that the Government must always act on evidence and we have over the years worked hard to collect evidence, as did the previous Government when the problem first came to public awareness. There has been much public debate about the issue as so many people are aware of the problem.
There are currently two inquests into deaths where the relatives of the deceased are trying to establish whether contamination by cabin air could have been the cause of death. Both inquests are still open, and in both cases the CAA rather than my Department has been named as an interested party. Both of the deceased were employed by the same airline, and so far the evidence that has been gathered does not support the view that the deaths were connected to contamination of cabin air.
In the case of Richard Westgate, the Dorset coroner’s January pre-inquest review has been adjourned to 30 March 2016 to allow time for medical experts’ reports to be submitted, but he did release a prevention of future deaths report in 2014, which some have taken as a signal that the death might be attributed to contamination of cabin air. However, there was no evidence to suggest that this was the case, and we await the full inquest verdict with a great deal of interest.
In the case of Matt Bass, who has been mentioned during this debate and whose case is before the Berkshire coroner, the January pre-inquest review has been adjourned until 15 June 2016 to allow time to locate medical samples and to instruct the experts. I offer my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the deceased, but, as the two inquests have not been concluded, it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment in further detail.
The Bournemouth coroner, in respect of Mr Westgate, issued a regulation 28 report to prevent future deaths under the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 in relation to both British Airways and the CAA on 16 February 2015. In it he states:
“In my opinion urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe that your organisation has the power to take such action.”
Is that part of your consideration?
As I said, the inquest has not been finalised and no verdict has been reached. In many ways, the precautionary principle may have prompted the coroner to issue that advice at that time, but the case is still before the courts. Similarly, if the case was before a criminal court, one would not want to comment before the verdict. It would be inappropriate for the Government to do so and my legal advice is that we should not comment before the verdict. In at least one of the cases we will not have long to wait for the verdict, and we will look very carefully at the scientific evidence brought before the inquest and how that is interpreted.
I am interested to hear the Minister say that the Government want to look carefully at the evidence; I appreciate the sentiment behind that. Would it be useful to also look very carefully at the responses to the report referred to by British Airways and the Civil Aviation Authority, because this information will help us to decide how best to move forward?
Certainly the CAA is involved in this. I meet regularly with the unions involved, particularly BALPA, so it is not something that we are trying to shuffle away, but we need to wait for the result of the inquest before we report on these particular cases. I will go on to present various pieces of evidence and show where we are on this important matter. I will talk about what work has already been done and what work we believe needs to be done.
The safety of cabin air is an issue that has been a matter of public debate over several years—in fact, over a decade now. This continues to be the case, and I, together with my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, have received a considerable amount of correspondence and responded to several parliamentary questions on cabin air quality. As background, some crew and passengers have expressed concerns that they have suffered long-term health impairment, which they contend is due to exposure to organophosphates present in small amounts as additives in aviation engine oils and hydraulic fluids.
As ever, we have to be careful to have regard to whether there is evidence to support the link between the illnesses and cabin air. That is why the concerns have been investigated at length over a number of years. In 2006 the previous Government arranged for the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment—an independent advisory committee of toxicology experts—to review evidence from the British Airline Pilots Association. At the time, the Committee on Toxicity considered that it was not possible to conclude whether cabin air exposures in general, or following incidents such as fume events, cause ill health in commercial aircraft crews. It recommended further work to ascertain whether substances in the cabin environment could potentially be harmful to health.
A second inquiry was held by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, which looked into this issue as part of a wider inquiry in 2007, and published its findings in a report called “Air Travel and Health”. In that report, the findings of the Committee on Toxicity were supported. Following the recommendation in 2007 by the Committee on Toxicity, the Government commissioned a series of scientific studies as part of a research programme on cabin air. The principal research study, which was carried out by Cranfield University, was published in 2011. It found that, with respect to the conditions of flight experienced during the cabin air sampling, there was no evidence of pollutants occurring at levels exceeding health and safety standards and guidelines. Levels observed in the flights that formed part of the study—I stress that they did not include an instance of an oil seal failing—were comparable to those typically experienced in domestic settings. No higher levels of exposure were found than, for example, we would experience in this Chamber.
In addition to the principal study, three further research studies were commissioned and published by the Government. Those four published studies were formally submitted to the Committee on Toxicity for consideration in 2012. The Committee considered the research reports, as well as other research published in the scientific literature since 2007, and subsequently published a position paper on cabin air in December 2013.
I have recently written to several Members of Parliament regarding the findings of the Committee’s position paper. In that letter, which was also placed in the Libraries of both Houses, I summarised the advice the Committee gave and its conclusions. In short, the paper recognises that contamination of cabin air by components or combustion products of engine oils does occur, and that episodes of acute illness have occurred shortly after such episodes. However, it found that levels of chemicals in bleed air would need to occur in far higher concentrations than those found during the studies to cause serious toxicity, and that the symptoms that have been reported following fume events have been wide-ranging, and less specific than those that typically occur from chemical toxicity.
I am grateful to the Minister, who is being characteristically generous in giving way. Is there not a basic flaw in that suggestion, if we do not count incidents? Could it be that in some older aircraft that may not be maintained to such a rigorous standard, air fume events are more frequent? Is that not a possibility, if we do not do a proper investigation, in situ, in real time?
That is a very reasonable point to make. The findings have been made by professional toxicologists, whose job it is to analyse the effects of toxic compounds in a variety of locations, including the workplace. I shall come on to talk about the number of so-called fume events, and I have some evidence from the CAA to put it in context.
I understand the reports that the Minister refers to. I do not know whether he saw, as I did, the interview that Professor Boobis gave to the “Tonight” programme, when he was at pains to say that the Committee on Toxicity was not saying that cabin air was safe when the incidents occurred. He went on to say that it had made proposals for further research that could be pursued; as far as he knew no one came back to the committee. Has that been followed up?
Research is ongoing, not least through the European Aviation Safety Agency, but the levels of OP concentration in situations where no fume event has occurred—which have been measured widely—have been found to be no greater than they are in this Chamber or any domestic location. They are very small background levels, as one would expect. Particularly given the sensitivity of some of the testing that can now be carried out, it is not difficult to find OPs almost anywhere.
As a toxic mechanism for the reported illnesses was found to be unlikely, a nocebo effect was considered a plausible alternative explanation for the symptoms. A nocebo effect can be defined as a detrimental effect on health produced by psychological or psychosomatic factors—for example where a subject develops symptoms as a reaction to a situation that he or she perceives as dangerous or hazardous. However, neither option could be proved beyond doubt given the available data; but we know that the nocebo effect happens in other circumstances. I hesitate to give this example from my own experience, but when I was a child my mother would serve us a cooked breakfast and after we had finished she would say, “I hope those sausages were all right. They were well past their sell-by date,” and one felt a feeling in one’s stomach. It is not the same thing, but it shows how psychological effects can pass into physical effects. That is one of the theories put forward by the scientists looking at the matter. The nocebo is an established psychological and medical situation.
The Minister is being generous with his time this afternoon. What I want to know is what is behind the research. What about the cumulative impact of constant exposure to instances of gases being released into the cabin?
I am going to come on to the frequency of fume events. I think none of the toxicologists or other scientists involved in the projects consider that there is a risk in the normal background level of chemicals in an aircraft cabin. As I have said, those are similar to the levels found in any other setting in the UK. The fume events are what we need to look at, and I will be discussing a little more evidence that I have been given about the frequency of those events.
As a toxic mechanism could not be categorically ruled out as the cause of the symptoms, the Committee concluded that more research would be beneficial. It stated, however, that it would be necessary to balance the likelihood that the further research will usefully inform further management of the problem against the costs of undertaking the research. There are various aspects of the issue to take into consideration, including the results of the research that has been undertaken and the unpredictability and rarity of the fume events. I said I would have some information on that. The Civil Aviation Authority operates a mandatory occurrence-reporting scheme and, contrary to what we may have heard during the debate, the CAA is determined that every type of occurrence should be reported. Indeed, if airlines do not report instances, questions are asked about whether their culture is a good one.
When I was a member of the Select Committee on Transport we visited the CAA and were given a list of the sorts of reports that came forward, which included things that people might not see as relevant, such as both pilots eating the same sandwich. That would be an issue if there were a food poisoning incident. Even what might seem trivial and unimportant incidents must be reported, and there is a culture of reporting in the airline industry, not least in the case of fume events, which people are well aware of.
The Minister is being very generous. How does the CAA envisage the compulsory reporting of incidents being carried out, when there is not the monitoring available to find out whether one has occurred or not?
I am advised that if a fume event occurs it is apparent to everyone on the aircraft. The smell of the oil is absolutely apparent to people. As I mentioned, there is a culture of reporting in the CAA and the aviation industry—which, incidentally, we would like to spread to the health service, where near misses and potential accidents are often not reported. Its reporting culture ensures that the aviation industry is one of the safest in the world.
That is the crux of the debate. The reality is that it may be possible to detect a serious fuel event; but what about a minor one, where there is slight leakage into the cabin?
I will also give way to the hon. Member for Brent Central before I respond.
To pick up on that point, there are also some toxins that one cannot smell, so is not the way to gather the empirical evidence, as has been said, just to monitor what is going on in the aircraft at the time? The Minister is absolutely right: the airline industry has a culture of reporting the errors or mistakes that people make, so that it can improve its system. However, that is exactly what is not happening with these incidents, because they are not being monitored.
A lot of air quality monitoring has been carried out on aircraft. The problem is that fume events are relatively rare and therefore there has not been the ability to pick one up during one of those monitoring situations.
Under the CAA’s mandatory reporting scheme, the trigger for a report is an event that is considered by the crew to be a
“safety-related event which endangers or which, if not corrected or addressed, could endanger an aircraft, its occupants or any other person.”
None of the flights where fumes and smells were reported in post-flight questionnaires met those criteria; they are the ones that we actually tested. However, I have some data from the CAA on the number of those reports where smells have been reported in the cabin. We heard from the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde that he had been given the figure of about one in 2,000 flights. We heard from the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) that it is about one in 100. The evidence that I have is that in the last decade we have seen annually between 282 and 471 reports of smells or fumes in the cabin. The last year that we have report numbers for is 2014, when there were 426.
However, it must be emphasised that up to now, reports of fumes have included all causes of smoke, odour or fumes, both internal and external, and not just incidents of bleed-air contamination. The CAA estimates that a maximum of 10% of those incidents reported are regarding bleed-air contamination—in other words, less than one a week—and therefore it has not been possible as yet to have testing equipment on an aircraft when one has happened. I hope that that puts into context the frequency with which these situations occur.
I would like to press the Minister a little further on this issue, because it is very important. The fact that detection equipment is not available or not placed on aircraft means that we are moving to subjective measures of whether an incident has occurred. Is it not vital that we first do the correct monitoring in order to understand how big, small or frequent these incidents are, and then go on to take action? I do not think that the reports to which the Minister is referring are satisfying us that that empirical evidence is available.
I could not agree with the hon. Lady more. I am laying out what research has been done and what information we have to date. That is why it is very important that EASA makes further progress. Indeed, we are keen to find out what research is happening around the world. Because of the international nature of the aviation industry, it is the Government’s view that an international approach to any future research investigations would be appropriate.
Will the Minister comment on the occupational health and safety aspect and look at this issue again? It seems to me that air cabin crews’ Health and Safety Executive protections apply only when they are on the ground and outside the aircraft. Things such as Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations seem to be falling through the net between the CAA and the HSE.
My advice is that the CAA is the body responsible for the safety of crew and passengers in this case, and the CAA, as I have said, takes this very seriously. We are working with international bodies such as EASA to try to progress some of the research. The opportunity to collect data from a broader sample base than is available in the UK—
The Minister has been most generous in accepting interventions. My understanding is that COSHH regulations would apply to much of this, but that the CAA has said that COSHH regulations do not apply to it. Could the hon. Gentleman go away and look at that, in terms of the health and safety protections that should apply to these workers?
I am certainly happy to interrogate the CAA on its interpretation of the rules on COSHH. I am well aware of the operation of the regulations; as a former road tanker driver, I know all about COSHH regulations. But of course aviation is an international business and aircraft are not necessarily within our jurisdiction as they are flying, so it is important that we have international agreements. Indeed, many aircraft that carry British nationals are flagged to other countries around the world, and therefore we need to ensure that their standards are as high as ours and that work can be progressed internationally.
I will add to the interventions now, so that the Minister can get them out of the way in one go. Could I press him a little more on the business about EASA? If I understood him correctly just now, he was saying that EASA was looking at the research that is available. The letter that he sent to the Transport Committee, as I understood it, suggested that EASA was looking not at that, but at the future of monitoring equipment. That is very important, but my question stands: who is looking at the body of research that is already there, nationally, in Europe and internationally, pulling it all together and seeing whether any action can be taken on the basis of what we already know?
Certainly the UK has looked at the studies that have already taken place. Indeed, many of those were initiated in this country by the previous Labour Government. But we are obviously very keen to look at how we can work to get further information. In terms of the EASA research, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In fact, due to the unpredictability and rarity of fume events and due to the international nature of the aviation industry, it is the Department’s view that an international approach to any future research investigations would be appropriate. The opportunity to collect data from a broader sample base than is available in the UK alone would lead to a higher probability of more meaningful evidence being collated. The Department therefore wrote to EASA with those views in March 2014.
EASA did launch in the spring of 2015 a preliminary in-flight cabin air measurement campaign. That will develop a methodology and put in place adequate equipment to perform cockpit and cabin air measurements. The results of that campaign, which will be used to prepare for an envisaged large-scale project in the future, are expected in autumn 2016. The Department will follow with interest the progress of that work; indeed, I will update the hon. Gentleman when I get further information.
At national level, the aviation health unit within the medical department of the CAA will continue to monitor issues relating to cabin air, as part of its wider role as specialist adviser to the Government on aviation health issues.
As I said, EASA has launched preliminary work, and we hope to carry that further. I point out that the UK is not the only country in the world conducting research in this field. For example, the German authorities, as well as the country’s biggest airline, Lufthansa, have conducted similar research projects to the ones mentioned here, and they have arrived at the same conclusions. That is not to say that the industry is complacent—far from it. New technologies for improving the filtration and monitoring of cabin air are emerging all the time, and as we have discussed, there is a particular aircraft type, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, that uses a different source of air, although it must be noted that the equivalent Airbus aircraft, the A350, uses the conventional bleed-air system for cabin air sourcing.
The aviation industry is aware of the concerns that have been raised and is continuously reviewing the current practices, as well as developing options for future improvements. The Government are working together with the industry to support that momentum. The joint Government and industry funded aerospace research and development programme, supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute and Innovate UK, is supporting projects in related areas, including air and oil systems, electronic technologies and system health monitoring, all of which will lead to enhanced cabin air quality as one of the outcomes. The Aerospace Technology Institute is currently working with industry to launch further projects in these areas.
In 2013, industry and Government, working together through the Aerospace Growth Partnership, made a joint funding commitment worth £2.1 billion in total for aerospace research and development over seven years. That was protected, and extended by an additional £900 million over six years to 2025-26, in the spending review in 2015. The industry has committed to matching the investment from the Government in this area. The industry certainly understands the importance of research and development aimed at improving overall safety. However, for the industry to drastically change the way the aircraft are air-conditioned or, indeed, to change the lubricants, there would have to be clear evidence that shows that cabin air quality is harmful to crew and passengers. The current practice of using air from the compression stage of the engine—bleed air—has been shown to be an effective, fuel-efficient and reliable way of providing air to the cabin.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the issue is taken seriously by all parties involved. However, as it is a complex issue with little evidence to show that a change is needed, it will take time to find new and innovative solutions that would be accepted by all. We certainly need to co-ordinate international research and I will raise that with the CAA at our next meeting. I will also discuss the issue with the British Airline Pilots Association, although I have to say that the issue has not necessarily been very high on its agenda at some meetings I have had with it. Maybe debates such as this will further raise awareness among those who work in the industry.
Finally, I urge a note of caution on the precautionary principle. I was a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy and, very often, the precautionary principle was used as a way of taking action on something for which there was no supporting evidence. I cite the case of phthalates used as a softening substance in PVC for medical uses and for things such as babies’ bottles. The outcome of making a change based on no evidence other than some very limited migration evidence actually resulted in products that were not as suitable and could have jeopardised people’s treatment. We need to be very careful about using the precautionary principle. We need to look at the actual evidence. I am pleased that research has been carried out, and more research will be carried out.
Once again, I stress how seriously I take the issue and how important it is that we get more evidence. I thank the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde and for Brent Central, and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) for securing the debate and for providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important and, to many, very personal issue.
Mr Hanson, thank you for the opportunity to summarise the debate. I reiterate my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for awarding us the time. I am extremely grateful for the support of colleagues in the debate, which has been well attended, particularly as we are in the second day of the Budget debate. I particularly thank the hon. Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who obviously stressed that this is a cross-party issue. I was remiss in my introduction not to specifically thank the hon. Member for Crawley for his existing parliamentary work on the topic. It was the first thing that I looked at when addressing the issue. That is much appreciated and I am grateful to be able to do that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) for their support for the debate and for the points that they raised.
In addition, I thank the hon. Members for East Lothian (George Kerevan), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) and for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). I am, of course, grateful for the contributions of the Front-Bench spokesmen, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who made an excellent speech, and, indeed, for the Minister’s response.
In my opening speech I said that I felt I had seen and heard enough to warrant the call for an inquiry into the issue. That view has only been strengthened by listening to the testimony and speeches of colleagues who have come along to the debate today. I wanted to bring a specific point to the Minister’s attention—and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield echoed this—which is that I have copies of the American Federal Aviation Administration’s presentations on the new Dreamliner, suggesting that cabin air was among the design considerations for the new 787. I would be happy to send those to the Minister, although I am sure he has the means to obtain them himself.
Notwithstanding the very good speech the Minister made presenting his position and the seriousness with which he took the issue, it seems unlikely that the controversy will diminish. I think it is reasonable to say that the studies he mentioned have not reassured many people working in the industry to date, and that must be our primary concern.
I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Easington and the hon. Member for Horsham said, which was that, until we can rule out an adverse effect on health, it is reasonable to consider the precautionary principle. I certainly intend to continue my interest in the issue and to call for a full inquiry, and I urge hon. Members present to continue to do the same.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered cabin air safety and aerotoxic syndrome.