Channel 5 Factsheet
Programme broadcast Autumn
Air travel is more popular than ever. Each year the number of air
passengers and the distances they travel continues to increase. But is
air travel safe? Air accidents are certainly on the decrease, but at the
same time important new health dangers are coming to light. In fact, it
is reported that in recent years more people have died from
health-related incidents on board planes than have died in air crashes.
Despite this worrying news there are things you can do to make your air
Flying poses more dangers to health than you ever imagined or that
the airlines are prepared to warn you about. The difficulties are not
confined to cheap charters and bucket shop flights, but also affect the
world’s most prestigious airlines. Some experts even go so far as to say
that every plane ticket should carry a government health warning.
At one time, all the air planes circulated came from outside the
cabin – an expensive process. But as the price of aviation fuel has
risen over the past twenty-five years, airlines have started to recycle
air as a way of cutting costs. Today usually 50 per cent of the air is
recycled and the volume of total air per passenger is reduced. It is
reported that some airlines are more economical than others: if you
travel economy with one airline you get 20 cubic feet per minute; but
with another it is 8 cubic feet per minute. You can breathe more easily
in business class with 60 – and pilots get 150.
Recycled air can mean recycled germs. Filters are not totally
effective in screening out viruses and bacteria, even when they are in
full working order. Added to this, cabin air is drier than a desert, an
environment that helps many viruses to thrive.
Catching a cold on a plane is pretty common, but there have recently
been some much more alarming cases. On a European charter flight, 180
passengers and crew got a particularly nasty form of gastroenteritis.
One businesswoman travelling Brussels to New York contracted
tuberculosis from a passenger sitting in another part of the plane.
Another study showed that an air passenger with tuberculosis infected
fifteen people on board.
Some experts believe the best way to protect yourself from other
people’s germs is to wear a respirator flying mask. Of course the other
rule is: if you’re ill, don’t fly.
During a flight, airlines prefer their passengers to be seated and
therefore immobile, for reasons of safety. This immobility can, however,
carry a risk. Lack of exercise, sleeping too long and alcohol all
contribute to a potentially dangerous condition:
deep vein thrombosis or blood clots.
Each year, some 30,000 passengers suffer from this flight-induced
condition. Some of them die, particularly if a clot reaches their lungs.
When it was first identified in the1960s, the syndrome was called
‘economy class syndrome’ (as you are more likely to be affected if you
are over 50, overweight, and sitting in cheaper smaller seats), but
experience shows that deep vein thrombosis is no respecter of seat
prices. Exercise and abstinence from alcohol will help to reduce the
Court cases in progress in Australia have exposed one of the newest
dangers to those who fly, especially cabin crew. A sickness which
affects the central nervous system – that has hit crews as far apart as
Scandinavia and Australia – has allegedly been traced to leaking oil
seals. The leaks can cause air systems to become contaminated by
hydraulic fluid and jet oil vapours containing organophosphates – highly
dangerous chemical compounds.
Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have denied that there is a risk,
but the courts will soon decide on the cases of stewardesses who were
found to be incapacitated and subsequently lost their jobs. There is
growing evidence that a number of aircraft are at risk. If there is a
mist in the cabin and a pungent smell of wet socks -get your mask on
There is also growing evidence that crew and frequent flyers may be
exposed to dangerous levels of cosmic radiation, due to the high
altitudes of air travel. On a flight from London to New York an air
passenger receives the equivalent radiation of two X-rays. As a result,
skin cancers are becoming more common among pilots, and crews may have a
higher exposure to radiation per year than nuclear plant workers. So if
you are a frequent flier, regular health checks are advisable.
Doctors suggest, it takes a day to recover from the effects of moving
one time zone – so it would take you a week or more to adjust from a
flight from the UK to the West Coast of the USA, or to Australia. Jet
lag is not another name for laziness; it is a medical condition. If you
area regular flyer your body might never get the chance to adjust
properly. Businessmen who frequently fly long distances commonly suffer
from chronic fatigue, insomnia and gastroenteritis. The long-term
effects of jet lag have yet to be studied; therefore video-conferencing
may be a healthier alternative to frequent business flying.
Ocean-going liners are obliged to have a doctor on board, but
airplanes are not. Some aircraft are fitted with medical equipment, but
others simply have crew trained in first-aid. Physicians or nurses who
are called upon to help their fellow passengers in an emergency are
sometimes not even thanked by the airline. More seriously, some have
been sued for medical negligence. As a result, some doctors are now
reluctant to respond to a call for help, so don’t always expect medical
help from fellow-passengers.
What can you do to help yourself? To reduce the risk of health
problems from air flight, follow the basic medical safety guidelines
Help yourself: take exercise, protect yourself and don’t drink
Ask the airlines direct questions about health and safety
Lobby your MP for stricter international controls over aircraft
safety and health
Channel 5 Television, 22 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LY.
Published in 2000 by Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd to accompany Air
Sick, a Zigzag production for Channel 5, first shown in Autumn 2000.
Project co-ordinator: BBS, Author: David Souden. For further copies of
this factsheet please send a stamped, self addressed envelope to: Air
Sick, PO Box 55, London W12 8UE; or ring the Channel 5 order line on
0990 555055(calls cost a maximum of 8p per minute.) Alternatively visit
the website at: www.channel5.co.uk
The Aviation Health Institute: This organisation campaigns for
health awareness in flying and sponsors medical studies. It has a
telephone helpline open on weekdays: 0800 389 6066. It also has a
website, with an online shop for respirator masks and its publications:
The Flight Safety Foundation: An international organisation
campaigning for safer flying.
Air Safe: Provides useful information for travellers including
health and safety tips. www.AirSafe.com.
And to show that airsick bags can be an art form, there is even a
website for collectors:
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad): London
School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London WC1.