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Poisoned on planes? The Norfolk man at the heart of campaign taking on major airline companies

PUBLISHED: 08:01 24 August 2015 | UPDATED: 08:19 24 August 2015

Former airline pilot John Hoyte is at the centre of a fight after he quit in 2005 after suffering 16 years of adverse reactions, dizziness, slurring, and headaches. He now runs his flight simulator business in Norwich.
Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Former airline pilot John Hoyte is at the centre of a fight after he quit in 2005 after suffering 16 years of adverse reactions, dizziness, slurring, and headaches. He now runs his flight simulator business in Norwich. Picture by SIMON FINLAY.

Archant Norfolk.

A Norfolk man is at the heart of a growing campaign to prove that contaminated air inside planes poisoned him, dozens of fellow cabin crew and even passengers.

Norfolk pilot and aerotoxic campaigner John HoyteNorfolk pilot and aerotoxic campaigner John Hoyte

Former pilot John Hoyte has called on the government and airlines to “put the health and safety of the public first” and react to what he, and many others, say is growing evidence air quality on flights can pose a serious health risk.

The 59-year-old, from Bracondale, in Norwich, is a prominent part of the campaign, which is taking on the major airlines and the government to highlight the effects of so-called aerotoxic syndrome. He has recently published a book outlining the argument, as well as his own experiences.

Now Mr Hoyte, who quit as a pilot after suffering serious health problems, which he claims were caused by poisoning, has received the backing of Norwich South MP Clive Lewis and former Norwich North MP Ian Gibson, as he calls on the government to hold a public inquiry.

However, the government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have so far rejected the calls, claiming several expert studies have concluded there’s “no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in the air and possible long-term health effects”.

Norfolk pilot and aerotoxic campaigner John HoyteNorfolk pilot and aerotoxic campaigner John Hoyte

The CAA has admitted that such a link cannot be excluded and that it is supporting a new study into the issue.

The refusal of an inquiry comes despite the fact that this year alone, coroners in two separate UK inquests of air cabin crew have cited aerotoxic syndrome as a possible cause of death.

Meanwhile the Unite union has launched a legal case on behalf of 17 members, seeking damages for alleged ill-health caused by the presence of toxic substances.

Mr Hoyte said: “At the moment there is trust in the government and the airlines. People think ‘they wouldn’t lie to us, so it must be safe’.

“We have more than 200 testimonies of pilots, staff and passengers getting on to flights and getting sick. I don’t know how many they need to take this seriously. I’m not doing this for myself; I don’t want money. I’m doing this to protect cabin crew, passengers and children.”

The claims centre upon the method used on the majority of commercial planes to direct breathable air into the cabin.

Jets have a system that compresses air drawn directly from its engines. However, it is believed that when there are faults in the engine seals, harmful oil particles containing organophosphates contaminate the air. When this happens it is called a “fume event” and passengers on the plane may notice a smell or possibly even see smoke.

It is estimated that fume events occur on around one in 2,000 British flights, but campaigners claim the reporting system is poor and incidents may be happening with people not even knowing.

Mr Hoyte, a father-of-two, worked as a commercial pilot for various airlines between the late 1980s and 2005 and started to feel ill just a few years into the job.

He explained: “In 1990 I was walking down the supermarket aisle when all of a sudden it started to feel like the shelves around me were moving.

“I staggered outside, I was sweating profusely and confused, I didn’t understand what was going on.

“It got worse. I started to develop all these sweats and feeling tired and lethargic all the time. I put it down to the lifestyle of a pilot but over the next few years it just got worse and worse. My memory started to go and I would speak very slurred. I could still fly the aircraft but it had started to affect my life.”

Mr Hoyte says he kept going but changed his job from night to day-time flying in the vain hope it would help. He added: “My memory got so bad there was no way I could learn to fly a bigger aircraft. I was like a zombie. Eventually, by 2005 I stopped flying. I had reached the end; I simply couldn’t go on. I was becoming a danger. I just walked off a flight there and then. I had a duty to my passengers to do that.”

The title aerotoxic syndrome was coined in 2001 by Harry Hoffman, a former US Navy flight surgeon; Chris Winder, a toxicologist at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney; and Jean Christophe Balouet, a French forensics expert.

It is claimed some people are genetically susceptible to the toxins, whereas other are not.

Reported ailments range from headaches, blurred vision and nausea to longer-term effects such as loss of memory.

Mr Hoyte says he first heard about the syndrome a year after he retired when he was one of 27 pilots, all of whom suffered ill-health, asked to take part in University of College London research.

The study concluded that all of the pilots tested had high levels of toxins in their blood and fat and claimed that up to 1,967 flights in the UK may have experienced contaminated air events during 2004 alone.

Mr Hoyte decided to devote much time and money into the campaign, taking part in conferences all over the world, as well as founding and self-funding the Aerotoxic Association, which aims to provide support for affected aircrew and passengers and fight for improved health and safety standards.

He runs the campaign from offices on Prince of Wales Road, in Norwich, which is also home to his new business venture, air simulator company Sim-Fly Norfolk.

He said: “Thankfully my body had a chance to recover and in 2007 I started to feel better.

“That hasn’t stopped me from wanting to fight for this cause. It is the responsibility of the CAA, government and airlines to properly look into this. The problem is they all know that to admit it would cost a lot of money.”

The book ‘Aerotoxic Syndrome: Aviation’s Darkest Secret’ is available through Amazon or via the campaign website www.aerotoxic.org
Tomorrow: We take a closer look at the debate and speak to other Norfolk pilots for their views on the issue.

CAA RESPONSE

A Civil Aviation Authority spokesman said: “Passenger and crew safety is of paramount importance to the CAA and we are constantly working to enhance safety standards.

“Several expert studies on the issue of cabin air quality have been carried out in recent years including the Committee on Toxicity paper published in 2013. The overall conclusion has been that there is no positive evidence of a link between exposure to contaminants in cabin air and possible long-term health effects – although such a link cannot be excluded.

“The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which is responsible for approving the safety of aircraft and setting aviation rules across the EU, is also carrying out further research in this area and we are actively supporting their work.”

The Department for Transport failed to return our calls.

SCIENCE BEHIND CLAIMS

Commercial airliners fly at altitudes where the air is very thin, and to make it breathable it has to be pressurised.

Early planes used fresh air which was compressed by mechanical air pumps, but this method was costly and prone to breaking down, so in the last five decades the standard system has been for compressed cabin air to be ‘bled’ from the jet engine on the wing of a plane. Once cooled, the air is directed into the cabin.

Campaigners are concerned that air effectively enters the plane unfiltered and that potential faults in the engine seals could lead to harmful chemicals called organophosphates contaminating the air. Organophosphates are used to lubricate the engine’s metal parts.

They say this can cause particularly bad health problems when so-called “fume events” happen – a problem in the engine causing smoke to billow out – but also that long-term, low-level exposure over numerous flights also have an impact.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The association’s five recommendations are:

- No new jet aircraft should be designed using bleed air systems, which are prone to leaking toxins, for the cabin air supply

- All aircraft that continue to use engine bleed air systems should be fitted with filters

- Airlines and industry regulatory bodies should do more to disseminate information and facilitate discussion on the nature of cabin air and the potential risks it creates

- Priority should be given to researching and developing alternative non-toxic additives for aviation engine fuel

- All jet aircraft should carry out real-time monitoring of bleed air quality

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