about 100 hours each month in the air, flight attendants are bombarded with
pesticides, radiation, ozone and any illnesses passengers carry on board. Now
new research shows that they also fly along with some of the highest levels
ever measured for some flame retardants. All 19 commercial airliners in a new
study had several flame retardants in their dust. And one chemical was measured
at concentrations more than 100 times higher in the airplane dust than in dust
collected from homes and offices. Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist
at Duke University and co-author of the new study, said these levels were
"some of the highest measurements I've ever seen,â€ť which â€śsuggests that exposure
levels could be higher than one normally experiences in a car or the home
Spending about 100 hours each month in the air, flight attendants
are bombarded with pesticides, radiation, ozone and any illnesses passengers
carry on board. Now new research shows that they also fly along with some of
the highest levels ever measured for some flame retardants.
All 19 commercial airliners in a new study had several flame retardants in their dust. And one chemical
was measured at concentrations more than 100 times higher in the airplane dust
than in dust collected from homes and offices.
Heather Stapleton, an environmental chemist at Duke University and
co-author of the new study, said they were "some of the highest
measurements I've ever seen,â€ť which â€śsuggests that exposure levels could be
higher than one normally experiences in a car or the home environment.â€ť
Whether flight attendants, pilots and cleaning crews face any
health risks from the chemicals is unknown. But researchers worry that long
hours breathing recycled cabin air could have some effects, particularly in
"The additional exposure to the common passenger, occurring
during travels, will be minimal. A question of concern is rather personnel in
airplanes,â€ť said Ă…ke Bergman, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University
who has studied flame retardants on airliners.
Despite the sky-high levels of flame retardants in cabin air, a
small study of flight attendants and pilots suggests they don't seem to have
higher levels in their bodies than the general public. However, scientists say
the most prevalent flame retardant on airplanes is difficult to measure in
Levels of one flame retardant on airplanes were "some
of the highest measurements I've ever seen." -Heather Stapleton, Duke UniversityÂ Airplanes
are full of combustible materials, and a mid-flight fire could be catastrophic,
so the Federal Aviation Administration requires airplanes to pass strict fire-safety tests. Items on planes likely to contain brominated flame
retardants include seats, carpets, walls, overhead bins and pillows, according
to the new study's x-ray fluorescence tests. Carpets contained the highest
levels of bromine in the study.
Under fire in recent years, flame retardants have been building up
in human bodies, including breast milk, around the world, and there is mounting
evidence linking them to potential health effects, including reduced IQs,
attention problems and other neurological effects in children exposed in the
womb or during infancy.
Chemical companies say that flame retardants
are safe and
that they are necessary to protect people from fires on airplanes. An August,
2005 crash of a passenger jet in Toronto, in which all 309 people aboard
survived, is a prime example of how flame retardants can help keep people safe,
said Bryan Goodman, spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, an
"This new study, which does not report on any adverse health
effects from the chemistries detected, should not make us lose sight of the
fact that flame retardants can provide an important layer of protection to
travelers, and, like all chemicals, they are subject to review by governmental
bodies in the U.S. and around the world,â€ť Goodman said.
Victoria Day, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, an industry
group, said flame retardants "are essential" for safety and to comply
with "strict FAA safety regulations."
"To maintain high air quality in aircraft cabins, today's jets
have highly effective filters that are designed to remove virtually all
particles, including dust, from the cabin air," Day said.
But some research suggests that flame retardants may not actually
slow the spread of fires and may increase emissions of carbon monoxide and
hydrogen cyanide, two poisonous gases.
"Fire is a significant concern when you're 10,000 feet in the
air, but I think it boils down to the question of how effective are these
chemicals at retarding fire?" Stapleton said. "The data I've seen
recently for use in furniture has not convinced me that they would actually
provide significant escape time."
Airliners manufactured by Boeing, Airbus, Canadair Regional,
McDonnell Douglas and Embraer were analyzed for flame retardants in the study
by scientists from Harvard University, Duke and two other institutions. Dust
was vacuumed from the carpet and air return grilles on the wall near the floor
of airplanes manufactured between 1986 and 2008.
"The additional exposure to the common passenger,
occurring during travels, will be minimal.â€ť -Ă…ke Bergman,
Stockholm UniversityÂ Concentrations of DecaBDE, a brominated flame retardant
known as Deca that is used mostly for electronics, wire and cable insulation
and textiles, were "orders of magnitude higher than what is typically
found in U.S. homes and offices," the researchers wrote. For example, the
average level in airplane dust was 495,000 parts per billion, while in home
dust it was 4,500 and in office dust, 4,200.
Deca is being phased out by the end of this year in the United States. Little is
known about what, if any, health risk it poses to humans. However, animal studies have linked Deca to damage to the liver, thyroid,
reproductive system and developing brain. Based on animal studies, it is
classified as a possible human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection
After a cross-country flight, the hands of nine flight attendants
and one passenger contained high levels of Deca compared to the general public.
A newer flame retardant, HBCD, also was found in airplanes at
higher levels than in U.S. homes. Others were found at similar concentrations
One veteran flight attendant said that she and her colleagues are
concerned that they are exposed to many contaminants and other health threats
on airplanes. â€śOf course I'm concerned. I just donâ€™t know what to do other than
to quit,â€ť said the flight attendant, who has worked for a major airline for
several decades. She asked that her name be withheld. "We get exposed to a
lot of stuff...You're sitting in recycled air." On long flights, "by
the end of the day that air is really used up."
Research in airplanes is relatively new. The first study to show
that concentrations of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs) in dust from
airplanes are higher than in homes was published in 2008. More recent studies have supported
that finding, showing that PBDEs in cabin air during a
higher than in U.S. and U.K. homes and similar to levels found in industrial
Despite the high levels on aircraft, the amount of Deca and other
PBDEs in the bodies of airline workers is about the same as the general public.
A 2010 study did not find higher average levels of PBDEs in the blood of 30 Dallas-based flight attendants
and pilots compared to the U.S. general public, though some individuals did
have high levels.
"We found no evidence whatsoever of actual intake into the
body above background level," said Arnold Schecter, an environmental
epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston. He
said there could be some instances of elevated levels "in pilots, flight
attendants, other workers inside of airplanes or even people flying in
airplanes,however, it seems to us based on our research to be extremely
"Flame retardants can provide an
important layer of protection to travelers.â€ť -Bryan Goodman,
American Chemistry CouncilÂ But the scientists who conducted the
new study arenâ€™t convinced so they are now following up their aircraft study
with tests of flight attendants. Results are expected later this year.
â€śSeveral flight attendants in [Schecterâ€™s] study did have elevated
serum concentrationsâ€¦The weight of evidence certainly suggests that we need to
continue to examine this,â€ť said Joseph Allen, a Harvard School of Public Health
research associate and lead author of the study.
Complicating matters, Deca, the most prevalent flame retardant on
airplanes, is very difficult to detect in the body, Stapleton said. The amount
that gets into the bloodstream is small, so the chemical can escape detection.
Also, Deca is bulky so dust coated with it might not pass through the lungs to
the bloodstream. If it does pass into blood, it doesn't stay there long, so
unless a person is tested soon after a flight, researchers might miss spikes in
Although no one knows if flame retardants or other chemicals play
a role, flight attendants are more likely to have cancer and miscarriages than
the general public.
Female flight attendants have a 29 percent higher risk of all
cancers, including more than an 11-times greater risk of melanoma and a
35 percent higher risk of breast cancer than the general public. The longer a
flight attendant has been working, the greater the risk of cancer,
They also have a 62 percent higher risk of miscarriage and stillbirth than the general public, according to 2010 study, which says
these risks "have been poorly studied in a limited number of investigations."
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants says that their flight
attendants are allowed to fly during the first 28 weeks of pregnancy.
The triggers of these health problems are still under
investigation, and researchers are studying a number of possible culprits, such