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Dawn speaks in the Cabin Air Safety/Aerotoxic Syndrome debate in Westminster Hall

Dawn helped secure a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 17th March to discuss Cabin Air Safety/Aerotoxic Syndrome.

Here are Dawn's contributions to the debate:

Dawn: I should declare that I have a few friends in the airline industry, and I also take the occasional flight, so toxic air on planes is of interest to me. I am also a member of Unite and GMB. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for his excellent opening speech.

One of my friends who works in the airline industry consistently has hay fever-like symptoms all year round, even when there is no pollen in the air. Having listened to the debate so far, I wonder whether some of that might be a symptom of his working environment. I, too, am no expert on this issue, but I have read through some of the paperwork and information that was presented to me. A 2011 report by Cranfield University for the Department for Transport found that there were no pollutants in aircraft exceeding the available health and safety standards, but those standards are measured differently. They are measured with regard to those of us on the ground and do not take into consideration people in an aircraft at high altitude, where pollutants will obviously have a different effect. It worries me that there is no proper measure of what exactly is going on in aircraft.

As has been mentioned, the European Aviation Safety Agency will be reporting in October 2016 on the suitable implementation of measures to tackle the problem. It is great that we have heard from the Minister that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s new design is not only to avoid contaminating the air supply. As I understand it, the bleed-free design was introduced in the ’50s and ’60s because it delivered a considerable reduction in fuel consumption. It was considered good for the overall environment because it used less fuel to fly.

It is strange that the cumulative effect of pollutants in aircraft on those working in the industry has yet to be measured, because employers have a responsibility to their employees, as is established in law. Cabin crews and pilots deserve to be working in the best possible environment. After all, they ensure that we get from A to B safely and make our journey as pleasant as possible. The least we can do in this House is to ensure that they have a safe working environment.

Dawn: I absolutely agree. It might be a case of asking what we can do to restrict the poisonous fumes and toxic air that are coming into the plane. The airline industry should look into that.

We know that toxins such as carbon monoxide are invisible and odourless, so the only way we can really find out what is going on in an aircraft is to measure what is going on in real time, not after the plane has landed. I do not think that would be too costly. Instead of all the inconclusive reports that have been written, it probably would have made more sense to measure the air on planes in the first instance and do a report based on the findings.

Big industry normally does a cost analysis of how much something costs versus how many people might die as a consequence of certain events. However, the issue is not only the people who tragically die after toxic air situations but those pilots who, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), end up losing their licence. Having dated a pilot, I know that the constant threat of being tested and the fear of losing their licence is frightening.

The British Airline Pilots Association sought to attract UK airline support for the completely independent US multimillion-dollar Occupational Health Research Consortium in Aviation—a bit of a mouthful—but was given a runaround on the report and was told to go to the Department for Transport. It is strange that the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment produced a report without taking any independent evidence or evidence from Bupa, which initiated the drive for the report. Will the Minister commit, under the Freedom of Information Act, to make public the action that has been taken to address the responses to the report, of Bupa, the Transport and General Workers Union and Unite? We need transparency. We all surely want the same thing: a safe environment for crew members and travellers. It would therefore be a good thing to disclose under the Freedom of Information Act everything that has happened.

Previous Governments also failed on this issue, but given that experiences are being shared online and on social media, the situation has become urgent. As we have heard, Unite is pursuing several cases. Employers have a duty of care to their employees, which means that they should not just address whether such substances exist but, as has been said, prevent leakages into the air cabin.

Much has been said about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is great that the technology is moving forward. The Dreamliner does not use the bleed-air system, so this problem will not occur. The Government cannot force people to purchase such aeroplanes, so what can we do to make the work environment safer until all airlines roll out aeroplanes that do not use the bleed-air system?

I call on the Minister to ensure that the UK stipulates that a cabin air monitoring and detection system must be installed in any aircraft with bleed technology. Airline companies should be obliged to release the data unedited, so that the problem can be fully investigated. I am concerned about the health of cabin crews, pilots and friends and family members who fly.

Dawn: The Bournemouth coroner, in respect of Mr Westgate, issued a regulation 28 report to prevent future deaths under the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 in relation to both British Airways and the CAA on 16 February 2015. In it he states:

“In my opinion urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe that your organisation has the power to take such action.”

Is that part of your consideration?

Dawn: To pick up on that point, there are also some toxins that one cannot smell, so is not the way to gather the empirical evidence, as has been said, just to monitor what is going on in the aircraft at the time? The Minister is absolutely right: the airline industry has a culture of reporting the errors or mistakes that people make, so that it can improve its system. However, that is exactly what is not happening with these incidents, because they are not being monitored.

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