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Flight Attendants Demand Protection from Toxic Cabin Air

Date: June 5, 2003

WASHINGTON, DC – Patricia Friend, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO, will testify 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. The heavy use of recirculated air, fumes from heated engine oils and hydraulic fluid and the use of hazardous pesticides in the cabin can lead to serious debilitating illnesses for crew members and passengers.

Many of the health concerns created by aircraft air quality problems could be more easily addressed if flight attendants had OSHA protections. 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.

Friend’s testimony can be found below.

More than 50,000 flight attendants at 26 airlines join together to form AFA, the world’s largest flight attendant union. Visit us @ www.afanet.org.

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Thank you Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member for the opportunity to testify on the important issue of cabin air quality. My name is Patricia Friend and I am the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants. I wish I could address the many problems within the five minutes allotted to me by the Committee, however I am a realist, so I ask that my written testimony be submitted for the record.

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. While some on this Committee have been active on this issue, it still has not been properly addressed. 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.

Many more severe health risks exist in the cabin environment. Passengers and crew persistently report incidents involving exposure to carbon monoxide, to neurotoxins, and to ozone gas… each one 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.

A serious part of the problem is that the aircraft cabin is a unique workplace and not governed by any effective or enforceable air quality standard. People in most office buildings, factories and malls have workplace protections afforded them by OSHA. 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. 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.

The ventilation standard recommended for most indoor environments, including transportation vehicles by the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is 15 cubic feet per minute per person of outside air. This is called Standard 62. To paraphrase ASHRAE, Standard 62 is the result of hundreds of health-based studies of buildings. 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. Unlike airlines, they do not have the option to reduce the ventilation rate to save on heating or cooling costs. The only requirement that airlines must follow is to maintain cabin pressure which translates to about 3 cubic feet per minute to each occupant.

AFA members fought alongside our employers to ask Congress for financial relief from unfunded mandates. Nobody benefits if our employer files for bankruptcy. However, I feel 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.

The previous testimony outlines our concerns over ventilation standards in a most rudimentary manner. My written testimony identifies six other areas of concern with cabin air quality that the necessary time constraints will not allow me to address orally today. I would however like to talk about pesticides and contaminants in the aircraft cabin briefly.

Twelve countries including Australia, New Zealand and India require the spraying of pesticides within all parts of the aircraft cabin on all arriving and departing flights. In some cases, flight attendants are required to spray pesticides over the passengers during a flight. Other countries allow the cabin to be soaked with pesticides shortly before crew and passengers board. In some cases, the cabin is still wet with spray. And the flight attendants must work in this environment flight after flight, or risk either discipline or a pay cut. There are numerous reports of severe chemical burns on the skin, throat closure and nerve damage. Another concern is the potential effect of these pesticides on pregnant mothers and their unborn children.

Another serious problem with cabin air is the possibility of various dangerous chemicals entering the cabin. Engine oils, hydraulic fluids and deicing solutions can leak or spill into the aircraft engines and the auxiliary power unit. As outside air is compressed in the aircraft engines, these oils and fluids are heated to high temperatures. Some of these byproducts contain neurotoxins that have a similar effect as those that we’re looking for in the Iraqi weapons program. Hundreds of reports cite smoke, mists or odors in the aircraft cabin while in flight. The symptoms described by those on board - range from headache and dizziness to memory loss and seizures. These symptoms are consistent with inhalation of these dangerous chemicals. I ask this Committee to please accept the submission of a first hand account by one of our members that provides detailed documentation of the problems with cabin air quality.

AFA has produced an in-depth report that outlines our concerns in much more detail than I am able to convey verbally today. I ask that you examine this informative document and contact AFA should greater clarification be necessary. I am happy to answer any questions regarding my oral or written testimony.

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