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If the Inside of an Airplane Smells Like 'Dirty Socks,' Here's What it Means


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Many who board airplanes fear catching an illness from all the germs swirling around in the confined space.

What they might not realize, as ABC reports, is that there's a hidden danger in the air coming out of the vents during the flight as well.

Air, or “bleed air,” in planes is taken in from the sky durning flights. It is “directed through the engines” and into the plane through vents.

If engine oil is leaking, the air can become contaminated with a toxic substance mixed with airplane oil to improve thermal stability— tricresyl phosphate (TCP). When the neurotoxin leaks into the air, it is said to have a smell similar to dirty socks.

The negative effects that TCP can have on the body called Aerotoxic Syndrome. According to Aerotoxic.org, the signs of the condition include:

  • Fatigue – feeling exhausted, even after sleep
  • Blurred or tunnel vision
  • Shaking and tremors
  • Loss of balance and vertigo
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory impairment
  • Headache
  • Tinnitus
  • Light-headedness, dizziness
  • Confusion / cognitive problems
  • Feeling intoxicated
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Coughs
  • Breathing difficulties (shortness of breath)
  • Tightness in chest
  • Respiratory failure requiring oxygen
  • Increased heart rate and palpitations
  • Irritation of eyes, nose and upper airways.

The effects of TCP can go beyond feeling sick on a flight— it can change the rest of your life. Just six years ago former pilot, David Hill, and flight attendant, Denise Weiss, were on a flight together when they, and others, began to feel unwell.

Weiss tells ABC:

“It was a flight of confusion... I felt intoxicated, I felt a headache that was like no other headache, my eyes were bloodshot, I felt intoxicated and obviously I had had nothing to drink and didn't understand why I was feeling that way."

As a result of the contaminated air on the flight, she has suffered permanent “central nervous system damage” and will be on medication to manage her symptoms for the rest of her life.

Hill, who also felt ill on the plane is also suffering lasting effects. The pilot's balance problems and short term memory loss were so severe, he has been stripped of his license.

While Airbus tells ABC that their airplanes have air filters, not all airplanes do. In a 2016 article posted on the Huffington Post, Industrial Hygienist of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Judith Anderson, explained the issue in further detail:

“Pilots are breathing bleed air, and pilot error can come from exposure to oil fumes and carbon monoxide in their air... This issue was recognized by the FAA as a flight safety concern back in 2004. In February 2012, Congress again ordered the FAA to fund research. [The FFA] barely touched the Congressionally-mandated research into filter and sensor options... In effect, the FAA justified its inaction by claiming to have only received 18 oil fume reports from airlines over ten years, even though this is patently untrue."

In a counterpoint paper, Anderson lays out numerous “myths” of the airline industry regarding Aerotoxic Syndrome including it can be proved you have been effected by TCP with a blood test, you have to see a “haze” or “mist” in the air for the neurotoxin to be present, and that “bleed contamination events are rare.”

The airline union asserts that approximately 1 in every 35,000 flights are effected by leaked TCP. However, the industry group Airlines for America issued a statement saying, “Frequent studies over the years have consistently concluded that cabin air meets or exceeds health and safety standards.”

Watch ABC's full report here...

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