Spending about 100 hours each month in the air, flight attendants are bombarded with pesticides, radiation, ozone and any illnesses passengers carry on board. Now new research shows that they also fly along with some of the highest levels ever measured for some flame retardants.
All 19 commercial airliners in a new study had several flame retardants in their dust. And one chemical was measured at concentrations more than 100 times higher in the airplane dust than in dust collected from homes and offices.
Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University and co-author of the new study, said they were "some of the highest measurements I've ever seen,” which “suggests that exposure levels could be higher than one normally experiences in a car or the home environment.”
Whether flight attendants, pilots and cleaning crews face any health risks from the chemicals is unknown. But researchers worry that long hours breathing recycled cabin air could have some effects, particularly in pregnant women.
"The additional exposure to the common passenger, occurring during travels, will be minimal. A question of concern is rather personnel in airplanes,” said Åke Bergman, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University who has studied flame retardants on airliners.
Despite the sky-high levels of flame retardants in cabin air, a small study of flight attendants and pilots suggests they don't seem to have higher levels in their bodies than the general public. However, scientists say the most prevalent flame retardant on airplanes is difficult to measure in people's bodies.
Airplanes are full of combustible materials, and a mid-flight fire could be catastrophic, so the Federal Aviation Administration requires airplanes to pass strict fire-safety tests. Items on planes likely to contain brominated flame retardants include seats, carpets, walls, overhead bins and pillows, according to the new study's x-ray fluorescence tests. Carpets contained the highest levels of bromine in the study.
Under fire in recent years, flame retardants have been building up in human bodies, including breast milk, around the world, and there is mounting evidence linking them to potential health effects, including reduced IQs, attention problems and other neurological effects in children exposed in the womb or during infancy.
Chemical companies say that flame retardants are safe and that they are necessary to protect people from fires on airplanes. An August, 2005 crash of a passenger jet in Toronto, in which all 309 people aboard survived, is a prime example of how flame retardants can help keep people safe, said Bryan Goodman, spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.
"This new study, which does not report on any adverse health effects from the chemistries detected, should not make us lose sight of the fact that flame retardants can provide an important layer of protection to travelers, and, like all chemicals, they are subject to review by governmental bodies in the U.S. and around the world,” Goodman said.
Victoria Day, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, an industry group, said flame retardants "are essential" for safety and to comply with "strict FAA safety regulations."
"To maintain high air quality in aircraft cabins, today's jets have highly effective filters that are designed to remove virtually all particles, including dust, from the cabin air," Day said.
But some research suggests that flame retardants may not actually slow the spread of fires and may increase emissions of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, two poisonous gases.