Boeing Is Being Sued for Toxic Fumes in Its Cabin Ventilation System that Injured Cabin Attendants

The June 23 edition of NBC’s Today Show featured an investigation into a report of toxic fumes in passenger airplanes. During the report, Houston attorney Rainey Booth discussed the problem and the lawsuit his firm has filed against Boeing. In this report, Rainey Booth tells Sequence Media CEO Mark Wahlstrom about the ventilation problem and the health effects that can result.

Rainey Booth

Rainey Booth

Booth explains that the four flight attendants who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Boeing smelled something a little odd when they got onto the airplane. They spent perhaps 45 minutes preparing the cabin before passengers boarded. As the plane took off, the smell got stronger, and all four flight attendants got very sick. Two of them passed out, two became nauseated. Eventually, three of the four became completely incapacitated, unable to speak, and were lying on the floor back in the galley. The pilot had to divert to Chicago because of the emergency. After the flight attendants were taken to the hospital, the initial symptoms cleared up. But over time, the problems returned.

The problem was caused by a design change dating back to the 1950s. The design is called a bleed air system. Because jet engines take in air to be burned and expelled out the back to propel the plane, designers decided to bleed off some of the air taken in and push it through the cabin, unfiltered, to ventilate the plane. It gave the plane more power and was economical as well. The problem is that engines have oil and fuel which, when burned, produce toxins. Boeing emails show that they were aware of this problem for years, but nothing was done to fix the problem. The filters in the plane’s ventilation system are only for air recirculating in the cabin. The air from the engine is not filtered.

Booth points out that the new Dreamliner does not use this system. Its system brings in fresh air that is pressurized and conditioned. It does not use air from the engine. The bleed air system is simply a problem the Boeing Company knew about but chose not to fix. And, Booth notes, there are easy fixes available. Filters could be installed. The cabin could have sensors to detect any aberrant chemicals in the air. An alarm could be added to warn that contaminants are entering the plane. The pilot presently has the ability to shut off the air bleed from either or both engines in the event of an oil leak.

Booth says that the chemicals entering the plane are neurotoxins. They attack and destroy nerve cells. These chemicals attack the central and peripheral nervous systems. They are similar in effect to Sarin gas. The best evidence of what these chemicals can do comes from the terrorist attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995. The Japanese government has followed the Sarin victims for as much as fifteen years, so there is evidence of what happens when someone is exposed to these chemicals. Booth notes that some of the victims with the worst problems were medical personnel whose only exposure was in treating victims at the hospital. Very small amounts of the chemicals, called organophosphates, can cause damage. A hallmark of low exposure is delayed reaction to the chemicals. It may take weeks or months for the neurologic changes to appear. The effect may be similar to Parkinson’s disease. There are a host of symptoms that can be diagnosed if a doctor knows what to look for and knows about the exposure to the neurotoxins.

Rainey C. Booth is a partner in Littlepage Booth, a firm focusing on complex and pharmaceutical cases. He was the lead plaintiffs’ state court team in the Rezulin litigation (Rezulin is an anti-diabetic drug that was removed from the market due to liver toxicity). He participates annually in the Global Scavenger Hunt. The Global Scavenger Hunt raises charitable funds for the Great Escape Foundation, a foundation that provides education and basic medical needs to some of the most economically challenged villages around the world. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.