Press Releases

Senate Approves Feinstein Measure to Protect the Flying Public From Harmful Toxins in Cabin Air on U.S. Airliners

-Requires FAA to Study Cabin Air Quality on Commercial Aircraft-

Washington, DC – The U.S. Senate today approved an amendment by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would require the FAA to conduct a study of air quality in the cabins of U.S. airliners. The amendment is designed to ensure that the FAA has the information it needs to protect the public from harmful toxins in ventilation systems on commercial aircraft.

Senator Feinstein’s amendment was included in the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.

This broader legislation authorizes $17 billion for major activities that would spur thousands of jobs, including the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program, which includes runway and taxiway construction; investments in FAA facilities and equipment; and funding of FAA operations.

Following is Senator Feinstein’s statement entered into the Congressional Record:

“Mr. President, I rise today to introduce an amendment that addresses the issue of toxins entering the ventilation systems on commercial aircraft. 

This amendment is designed to ensure the FAA has the necessary information to protect the American public from exposure to harmful contaminants while flying.
Specifically, here what the amendment would do:

  • First it would require FAA to complete a study of cabin air quality within one year. 
  • Second, the amendment would provide FAA with the authority to mandate that airlines allow air quality monitoring on their aircraft for the purposes of the study.

This amendment is necessary because the air in the passenger cabin is a mixture of re-circulated cabin air and fresh air that is compressed in the airplane engine. 

Sometimes the air you breathe on an airplane gets contaminated with engine oils or hydraulic fluids that get heated to very high temperatures, often appearing as a smelly haze or smoke.

That haze or smoke that enters the cabin air is a toxic soup and can contain carbon monoxide gas as well as chemicals that can damage your nervous system called tricresylphosphates (TCPs).

Exposure to TCPs can initially cause stomach ache and muscle weakness, followed by delayed memory loss, tremors, confusion, and many other symptoms.

Exposure to this and other air toxics in cabin air is a serious matter.

In 2004, the FAA concluded that the problem was so ‘unsafe’ that it needed to do thorough inspections of certain aircraft. 

In a Federal Register notice, FAA called for ‘repetitive detailed inspections of the inside of each air conditioning … duct,’ which FAA stated was ‘necessary to prevent impairment of the operational skills and abilities of the flight crew caused by the inhalation of agents released from oil or oil breakdown products, which could result in reduced controllability of the airplane.’

Let me take moment to explain how these broad findings impact people who happen to be exposed to toxic air in aircraft cabins.

Terry Williams is a mother of two and a former flight attendant, who knows firsthand the dangers associated with exposure to toxic fumes while onboard an airplane. 

As Terry was working on April 11, 2007, she noticed a ‘misty haze type of smoke’ on the plane as it taxied toward its gate. 

Since then, she has experienced chronic migraines and twitching. 

Terry made repeated visits to the emergency room before a neurologist told her she had been the victim of toxic exposure.
Terry is not alone. 
Although several flight attendants and passengers have related similar stories to the FAA of smelling chemicals and then experiencing serious illnesses, the FAA has never conducted a large-scale study to measure the frequency or severity of such toxic fume events in aircraft.

Moreover, there appears to be no FAA standard for identifying or preventing the presence of toxic fumes in aircraft cabins.

This FAA reauthorization bill pending before the Senate addresses this very important public health and safety issue. 

Specifically, Section 613 of the Commerce Committee’s bill would require that the Federal Aviation Administration implement a research program to identify appropriate and effective air cleaning technology and sensor technology for the engine and auxiliary power unit air supplied to the passenger cabin and flight deck of all pressurized aircraft. 

This is a very good and important provision.  FAA should absolutely study what equipment most effectively fixes this air quality problem.

But my amendment would go further than the establishment of a “research program.” 

It lays out a clear framework for protecting the public from what could be a serious risk.

First, it requires that FAA study the nature of this risk by thoroughly and comprehensively monitoring the frequency of exposure on aircraft, so that we understand whether toxic exposure is a common occurrence.

Second, the FAA must assemble records of passenger illness complaints to determine the specific health risks associated with harmful contaminants in airplane ventilation systems. 

By gathering this information, I am confident that FAA will develop a clear picture of the level of health risk posed by toxins in cabin air, and the ways to protect the American travelling public and the hardworking men and women who make air travel possible.

In March 2009, the President of The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), which in 2007 developed voluntary model standards to protect aircraft cabin air quality, called on FAA to ‘investigate and determine the requirements for bleed air contaminant monitoring and solutions to prevent bleed air contamination.’

I would like to submit a copy of this full letter for the record. 

But I also want to read ASHRAE’s conclusion, which states:

‘Although no systematic fleet-wide or industry-wide audits have been conducted, the UK Committee on Toxicity recently calculated the incidence of oil/hydraulic fluid events as 1% of flights based on pilots reports and 0.05% of flights based on engineering investigations….

‘Still, no aviation regulator requires either bleed air monitoring or bleed air treatment.

‘To this end, the ASHRAE committee that developed (the model air quality standard) is writing to ask you … to investigate the technical implications and flight safety benefits of addressing bleed air contamination, and to determine the requirements for bleed air contaminant detection systems and solutions to prevent bleed air contamination.’

I agree with the ASHREA recommendation that we need to study this problem and take steps to protect public health and safety.

I offer this amendment in order to implement ASHRAE’s very sound recommendations, and I encourage my colleagues to support it. I yield the floor.”