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Pilot Medical: How a fume event may lead to permanent damage

By: The CTS Team   •  

Your pilot medical, and life, may be on the line if you’ve experienced a fume event

I must admit, with over 30 years of professional flying experience and 30 years of filling out the paperwork for my pilot medical experience, I have never heard of a “fume event” which causes Aerotoxic Syndrome. A recent study has revealed permanent brain damage among pilots and cabin crew who were exposed to toxic fumes, including chronic exposure to low doses of toxins in aircraft cabins. 

During a fume event, toxic air from the engines makes its way into the cabin and flight deck via the air conditioning system. Sometimes it is accompanied by smoke, but in most cases, there is only a pungent smell in the cabin. There have been documented cases of pilots and cabin crew becoming ill during these events, as well as having symptoms after the event. Headaches, extreme fatigue, concentration problems, and numbness have been reported. 

Unfortunately, Aerotoxic Syndrome is not yet recognized as an occupational disease, so flight crew members are not entitled to financial compensation if they have to stop flying because of their symptoms. Research psychologist Daniel Dumalin wants to change that. He has conducted QEEG brain scans (measuring and mapping brain wave activities) on pilots and flight attendants who have experienced symptoms, then compared the results with those of healthy people.

Though his research is fairly new, he has already found a disturbing pattern: the same type of brain damage in all of his subjects, so far, in the areas of the brain that control cognitive processes (i.e. concentration problems, memory problems, or hypersensitivity to stimuli). Even more disturbing is the fact that the damage to crew members who haven’t flown in 10 years is just as obvious as it is for current pilots and flight attendants. 

Dumalin is hoping to continue his research with as many as 50 or more test subjects. If the results continue to indicate the same pattern of damage, he will have a strong case for the industry to take Aerotoxic Syndrome seriously. He has heard reports of pilots barely being able to control the aircraft after a “fume event” and feels that this is a serious problem that demands attention. I would have to agree.

While I am aware of the emergency procedures for smoke or fumes in the cabin, I was NOT aware that there was actually a name for toxic fumes. There is no doubt that cognitive problems would be grounds for denying a pilot medical, so pilots need to be aware of any strange or unusual odors while flying. Get the oxygen mask on asap and get the aircraft on the ground immediately if there is any doubt.

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