Flight Attendants Demand Protection from Toxic Cabin Air

June 6, 2003
Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), AFL-CIO, testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to expose the health effects of toxic cabin air in the aircraft cabin.

While the SARS scare has generated heightened interest in cabin air quality, the virus is not the only cause for serious concern with the quality of aircraft air, say flight attendants.

In her testimony, Friend told committee members, "It is most unfortunate that it takes the proverbial slap in the face to bring attention to an issue that affects hundreds of millions of people. Cabin air quality issues have been a concern to the 50,000 members I represent for decades… SARS has thrust the issue of cabin air quality into the headlines and tragically, many have died including flight attendants. In reality, SARS is not the greatest health risk associated with cabin air quality."

Passengers and crew persistently report incidents involving exposure to carbon monoxide, to neurotoxins and to ozone gas, testified Friend, adding that "each one [is] delivered to the cabin in its air supply, largely as a result of the airlines' shoddy maintenance practices. The results of these exposures vary in their level of seriousness. Respiratory diseases, nausea, dizziness, muscle tremors, nervous system damage and memory loss are just a few illnesses reported by flight attendants and are consistent with exposure to the aforementioned chemicals."

Many of the health concerns created by aircraft air quality problems could be more easily addressed if flight attendants had OSHA protections, says Friend. Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration has sole jurisdiction over health and safety in the aircraft cabin, which has resulted in an injury and illness rate (calculated by days away from work data) of 8 percent, more than four times higher than the national average.

"People in most office buildings, factories and malls have workplace protections afforded them by OSHA," said Friend, adding, "Flight attendants do not. Instead, we have been relegated to breathe air and work in an oxygen-poor environment containing exhaust fumes, heated lubricants and hydraulic fluids, antifreeze and pesticides. This is the predictable result of the FAA, which lacks significant experience and knowledge of workplace safety issues, claiming exclusive jurisdiction over occupational safety and health in the aircraft cabin."

She noted the Supreme Court recently ruled 8-0 that mere possession of unexercised regulatory authority over certain working conditions is insufficient to displace OSHA's jurisdiction. The opinion also stated that an agency's minimal exercise of authority does not result in pre-emption of OSHA jurisdiction. "I ask this committee to make the necessary legislative changes to address this pervasive problem," said Friend.

The ventilation standard recommended for most indoor environments, including transportation vehicles, by the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is named Standard 62 and it calls for 15 cubic feet per minute per person of outside air. Investigators reported a reduction in symptoms when 15 cubic feet per minute or more of outside air is provided. Building codes usually require owners to adhere to Standard 62 at a minimum. However, the only requirement airlines must follow is to maintain cabin pressure, which translates to about 3 cubic feet per minute to each occupant.

Saying that she didn't support unfunded mandates, Friend said, however, "It is my obligation to inform this committee that the cost for an airline to comply with Standard 62 is roughly 12 cents per passenger per hour of flight. The airlines only view this as increased fuel costs. I urge this committee to look at this as a health issue for all who fly frequently, especially those that work in the aircraft cabin, and ask you to examine the costs incurred by individuals, health insurance companies and the federal government that result from this obscenely low 'standard' employed by airlines."

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