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On Your Side Investigations: Potentially toxic fumes created problems on U.S. flights in 2020 almost 150 times

Updated: Jan. 27, 2021 at 2:35 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Airlines are desperate to get more of us back flying the friendly skies as soon as possible after a year of pandemic hits to their business.

One of the biggest fears of flying? Catching COVID-19, but we found there’s something else in the cabin air you may need to be more worried about - potentially toxic fumes on board.

We combed through federal records and found flight crews in 2020 reported feeling faint, dizzy, nauseous, or tightness in their chest dozens of times last year while flying on US airlines.

We found, even with dramatically fewer flights than normal because of the pandemic, flight crews last year anonymously reported to NASA 147 fume events, or times when smoke or smells caused issues on a flight.

“If there’s some kind of breakdown or leak in that ductwork in the engine where the air is coming from, you can have those fumes get into the cabin and the flight deck,” warns WBRC Fox6 Chief Meteorologist J-P Dice, who’s also an airline transport pilot and flight instructor.

As the engine sucks in air, it diverts some to the air conditioning system and into the air you’re breathing inside the cabin, but not without going through filters first.

“Especially now with the pandemic going on, that has actually been increased,” Dice reports. “Those HEPA filters, to even remove viruses. But what happens sometimes when you get these fume events, if there’s a breakdown in that bleed air system, that ductwork so to speak, you can have fumes from heated lubricants or even hydraulic fluid that gets into the cabin.”

We found multiple examples in the NASA database of flight crews last year being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, flights having to turn around or even abort their takeoff and evacuate, and flight crews describing it “difficult to concentrate” after smelling fumes in the cabin or cockpit.

“So if everything’s working the way it’s supposed to it’s not a problem, but if you do have a breakdown in that ductwork or piping, that’s when you could have an issue.”

The FAA doesn’t track every single fume event, in fact the only publicly-available database is from NASA. And that’s only if flight crews decide to report these events anonymously.

So how can you protect yourself? Travel experts say don’t ignore odd smells. Most of the reports we saw mentioned smells like “old and wet socks,” “‘rotten eggs,” or just plain “smoky smells,” and in many cases it was passengers who first alerted flight attendants to the issue.

The quicker the crew can address the issue, the better for everyone’s health.

We would love to tell you how many of these events have happened to flights coming in or out of Birmingham, but this NASA database doesn’t include locations to protect the anonymity of the flight crews reporting these.

Here’s the NASA database where you can find these fume event records.

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