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Spring 2002 Vol. 2 No. 1

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Passengers in airplane cabin ©Digital Vision Can Air Travelers Breathe Easy?

A New Look at Air Quality on Planes

While poor air quality probably isn't the hazard foremost in Americans' minds as they board planes these days, it's been a concern for years. Many frequent fliers suspect that at one time or another they've caught a cold on a recent flight. Passengers have lodged complaints about dry eyes, dizziness, and a slew of other symptoms. And flight attendants have repeatedly questioned the safety of the air they spend their careers breathing.

The National Research Council recently examined the issue to see if such worries are warranted. What it found was a shortage of data, making it difficult to establish a relationship between poor air quality on planes and health complaints -- a deficit the Federal Aviation Administration should remedy. But there is evidence that some people, particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions, face an increased risk of health problems when they fly.

High levels of ozone -- a chemical that occurs naturally in the atmosphere -- have been known to worsen respiratory problems such as asthma. Studies indicate that ozone levels on some flights may exceed FAA and Environmental Protection Agency standards, the committee said, calling on the FAA to ensure that its current regulation for ozone is met for all flights. Aircraft should be either equipped to prevent the chemical from entering the cabin, or prohibited from flying at altitudes where high ozone concentrations are likely to occur.

Low air pressure may pose risks as well. At cruising altitudes, air pressure in the atmosphere is inadequate to support human life, so the cabin is "pressurized" to a safe level. But cabin pressure may still be too low to provide sufficient oxygen for infants and certain adults, the committee said. FAA needs to examine whether its current standard can protect everyone onboard, the report says.

And what about those cold and flu cases that develop suspiciously soon after air travel? The airplane ventilation system doesn't appear to aid transmission of infectious diseases, the committee found; a large number of people sharing a relatively small space for an extended time does.

It is still unknown, however, whether the current standard for cabin ventilation -- which requires only half the fresh air required for buildings -- is adequate for passengers' comfort and well-being. In general, the report calls on FAA to conduct a rigorous scientific investigation to demonstrate that all of its air-quality standards are adequate to protect public health -- and to revise any standards that aren't. It also should establish a surveillance program to keep a more watchful eye on cabin conditions and health complaints in the future.   -- Sara Frueh

The Airliner Cabin Environment and the Health of Passengers and Crew. Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2002, 344 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08289-7; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $37.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Morton Lippman, professor, Nelson Institute of Environmental Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, Tuxedo. The study was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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Copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences