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Aviation: Air Quality

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 27 October 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have evaluated the improvement in health and safety of the addition of the Quest AirManager system to prevent contamination of cabin air in BAe 146 and Boeing 747 aircraft.

My Lords, the Government understand that the European Aviation Safety Agency has certified this product as safe to use. We shall be interested to hear the experiences of airlines which buy it. Meanwhile, our research is making progress, led by Cranfield University, to ascertain what substances, and in what concentrations, may be in cabin air during fume events. That information should help identify appropriate solutions if necessary.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Is the Minister aware that since June 2000 I have been pressing Ministers in both Houses to take this issue a great deal more seriously than has previously been the case? However, Ministers seem to have been in perpetual denial about the seriousness of this in terms of the health and safety of both cabin crews and passengers. Will the Minister now accept that the decision by BAe would seem to indicate that it now takes this problem a great deal more seriously than it has in the past because it is investing money in these systems? Taken with the Breakspear research into fume contamination and the chronic medical effects on crews and passengers, will he now meet a deputation of those most directly affected with concerned Members of your Lordships’ House?

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the diligence with which he has pursued this issue, as he says, for nearly 10 years. However, he is quite wrong to imagine that the Government do not take it seriously. The Government responded to the report by the Committee on Toxicity in 2007, which said that the evidence was inconclusive and no connection between pilot ill health and cabin air could be proved or disproved, but that more research was needed. That was informed by BALPA as well. As a result the Cranfield study was set up, and we hope to get the first findings from that next year. We are not in any way complacent about the issue; we accept that some people experience unpleasant smells during the course of a flight and that there are occasional fume events that create those unpleasantnesses.

My Lords, I understand that these filters use an ionisation technique, which is brilliant for biohazards such as viruses and bacteria but is also being promoted as being good for taking toxic fumes out of aircraft. Have the units been tested when there has been a contamination event? If so, has the output from the filters been characterised?

I also pay tribute to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for the part that she has played in raising this issue in your Lordships’ House on a number of occasions.

It is important that we know what is in a fume event when it takes place. The purpose behind the Cranfield study is, first of all, to establish whether there is anything there that needs to be dealt with. Until we know that, it would be premature for us to say that a particular filter was the right solution. We know that they remove volatile organic compounds, and they are very good at removing bacteria and viruses. We are also aware that organophosphates are present in hydraulic engine oil. We need to establish whether there is contamination from the engine oil into the cabin, and that is what the Cranfield study is looking into.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Professor Helen Muir, who is responsible for the research of the Cranfield project, said last year in a magazine called Flight International that such fume events have occurred in the research? She goes on to mention,

“a wide range of volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds including benzene”,

and finishes by saying, “including organophosphates”. We know that organophosphates are extremely dangerous; Gulf War syndrome is one example of that, and we have seen shepherds affected by dipping their sheep. So why are the Government dithering when the health of tens of thousands of people is continually being affected by these events on commercial airlines?

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, almost answered his own question by referring to the work that Professor Helen Muir is undertaking at Cranfield. She is an experienced and well respected expert on aviation safety. The examination being conducted there is being done with the co-operation of airlines. It is the only work of its sort that is being conducted in the world, and that work is well over half-completed; we expect to get the findings next year. We do not yet have conclusive evidence that there are organophosphates that are harmful to health, but if that turns out to be the case then action will be taken straight away.

The noble Lord has just spoken about tens of thousands of people being at risk. Exactly how many fume events have actually occurred?

My Lords, in 2007 the Committee on Toxicity said that fume events occurred in roughly 0.05 per cent of flights overall—that is one in 2,000. The most recent figures for 2008 show that 97 contaminated air events were reported to the CAA out of 1.2 million passenger and cargo flights by UK carriers. Twelve pilots out of 20,000 have lost medical clearance for reasons that they attribute to cabin air. With regard to passengers, out of 29,000 complaints put to the Air Transport Users Council since January 2001, one has related to air quality.

My Lords, why was Cranfield University selected for the study? Why was there no competitive tendering of that research? Why was no neuro-psychological study included in it?

Cranfield is understood throughout the world to be a leading expert on air safety and air quality. The Government took the view that it was the obvious choice to carry out this work. This is an entirely independent study; there is no industry involvement in terms of funding.

My Lords, does the Minister expect all the aircraft which have been mentioned to be repaired and improved, or does he believe that most of them will be cascaded off into the third world?

I imagine that every airline will ensure that all its aircraft are safe all of the time. Given that events are so few, the chances of aircraft having to be retired for this reason are remote.