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Air Quality (Aircraft)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 1st July 2009.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 2:30 pm, 1st July 2009

It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, which is well overdue. I must declare an interest as I am a pilot; I therefore understand some of the issues perhaps better than others. In the interests of brevity, I hope to explain the reasons why I asked for the debate without losing hon. Members in too much technical detail.

I begin by posing the key question: is there a fundamental design fault in passenger aircraft that exposes passengers and crew to dangerous and potentially lethal toxic fumes? To place that question in context, one must first appreciate how modern aircraft pressurise the air so that passengers and crew can breathe normally at high altitudes. Up to about the late 1950s, pressurised air was taken from outside and depressurised using cylinders and so forth, but a cheaper way was found that involves taking pressurised air from the compressor stages of an aircraft’s jet engines. The air is cooled and flows into a chamber where it is mixed with highly filtered air from the passenger cabin. The air then flows through the cabin and exits through valves in the fuselage. It is called the bleed air system and has worked efficiently for many years. However, while micro-organisms may be trapped by those filters, it is clear that other toxins may not, which is the whole reason for this debate.

The use of air that has passed through the engine means there is a probability that toxins and organophosphates, particularly tricresyl phosphate, or TCP, which is used as an anti-wear additive, can enter the cabin. Those toxins are not removed by the filters. The consequences of TCP entering the cabin can be headaches and drowsiness, as well as respiratory and neurological problems. That is certainly unpleasant for passengers, but is potentially lethal for pilots. Captain Tim Lindsey, a British airline pilot who supplied evidence to the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment died in January 2009 of brain cancer—a long-term effect of toxicity exposure.

The condition caused by TCP has now been called aerotoxic syndrome, and the airline industry is familiar with it. Unfortunately, however, pressures within the industry mean that reporting of the syndrome is not as fair as it should be. Symptoms include eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches, skin problems, nausea, vertigo, loss of balance, dizziness, fatigue and cognitive impairment—all things that one does not want the person in charge of the plane to suffer from.

It is interesting to consider which planes are the most vulnerable. All aircraft may be affected, as the bleed air system is similar throughout all aircraft, which means that whenever any of us flies we could be exposed to those toxins from the air that is taken via the engine. However, one is more likely to be exposed to toxins through certain aircraft designs than others. The main aircraft are the Boeing 757, the Airbuses 319 and 320, the Boeing 737 and the BAe 146. Interestingly, a different design has been chosen for the cabin air system in the new Boeing 787, which is about to be rolled off the factory floor. In that new system, the air does not go anywhere near the engines. I do not attribute any fault to the old systems, but simply note that the new aircraft is already moving away from that old design. The industry is well aware of the issue, as are the airlines. After a disastrous flight on a BAe 146, on which two stewards collapsed and after which the crew went to hospital, Flybe decided not to use those aircraft again.

According to the clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Mackenzie Ross up to 200,000 passengers are affected by aerotoxic syndrome every year, but when one thinks about any of one’s experiences on an aircraft, one realises that one feels pretty lousy when one gets off anyway. We may attribute that feeling to the time change, jet lag or even the food on the aircraft. It is difficult to put one’s finger on, or understand, the scale of the problem, because not enough research has been conducted on the issue.

In the studies that have taken place, however, there have been some interesting results. The German television network ARD and Schweizer Fernsehen—Swiss Television—secretly took 31 swab samples from the aircraft cabins of popular airlines, of which 28 were found to contain high levels of TCP. Other scientific research, which was not necessarily linked to airlines, has proved that there is a direct link between TCP toxins and the human condition that I have discussed. That demonstrates the long-term link between low-level exposure to organophosphates and the development of neuro-behavioural problems. That position has been advanced by the US Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. Some 25 per cent. of Gulf war veterans suffered from the effects of organophosphate poisoning, and the organisation was able to establish that link, but unfortunately we have not been able to confirm the same link in relation to the airline industry. I hope that the Minister is willing to address that issue.

Airline pilots report symptoms similar to signs of aerotoxic syndrome.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, but will he clarify one point? He said that, unfortunately we have not been able to make a connection, but I think he meant to say that unfortunately, no such study has been conducted over here to establish whether that connection exists. Is that right?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. That is exactly what I am calling for, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point. Until we have the information that my hon. Friend mentioned, we will be in a very difficult place for making a judgment about what steps should be taken, rather than simply turning our backs on the issue.

The British Air Line Pilots Association has found that only 61 of 1,667 contaminated air events were recorded on the UK Civil Aviation Authority database. That equates to just under 4 per cent., which may be a small number from that perspective, but I return to my original point about how many incidents have been reported correctly. How many pilots simply said, “I don’t really want to rock the boat, or be seen to cause problems; I’ve got my future to look after, so I’m not going to bother filling out that incident report”? The real figure could be a lot higher.

However, passengers want to make sure that the figure is down to 0 per cent. They want to be sure that all pilots and co-pilots are fit and healthy when they get on a plane and when they get off it after a flight.

There have been other voices of concern from outside the UK. Of course, this is a global issue. More than 10 years ago, the Australian Senate concluded that there was a risk to health and flight safety from exposure to contaminated air. If the Minister would like to look into that, he should look at the investigation the Senate carried out in 2000. The German Parliament took only weeks to conclude that inhaling heated engine oil products was not safe.

Clear evidence demonstrates that there is a design fault in passenger aircraft that puts passengers and crew at risk from fumes, yet the CAA and the Government continue to allow that situation to go unchecked. It is worth recognising who pays for the CAA; it does a wonderful job in some respects, but let us not forget that it receives its financial support from the airlines, so the CAA is not necessarily the best organisation to make a judgment on whether there is a problem with TCP.

Let us take a look at other parts of the industry that have commented on the matter. BAE Systems has said:

“With the weight of human evidence and suffering, which is quite clear, there must be something there...There is absolutely no doubt in our mind that there is a general health issue here.”

That is from the people who make the aircraft.

The CAA commissioned the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to examine contaminated cabin air supply ducts removed from two BAe 146 aircraft. It concluded that the chemicals that enter the aircraft were unlikely to be of sufficient concentration to cause ill health. It just plucked two cylinders off two aircraft and decided there was nothing to find. We must understand that these incidents occur when a sudden push of toxins comes from the engine. It is not simply a matter of taking two cylinders at random and saying, “Well, that’s the judgment we are making for the entire aircraft industry.”

The report accepted that there were more than 40 different chemicals contained in oil breakdown products, for which there are no published toxicology data. That means the CAA is making a judgment and an assessment about something when it cannot even put a yardstick next to it. If it does not know about the 40 different chemicals and what they might do, surely it should ask whether it is possible to do some more research and find out a bit more about what happens to those toxins. The CAA should not simply say, “Well, the things we do know about don’t affect humans, but we are just going to push the things we don’t know about to one side.”

Of course, air crews argue that the data are meaningless because they were not collected during a contaminated air event, which, as I said, is when a sudden surge of toxins comes into the aircraft and levels of chemicals may be higher. Obviously, there is also a question about the validity of exposure standards currently used to determine what constitutes safe concentrations. Again, the CAA, rather than an independent body, is examining the matter.

It would be fair to say that no proper studies have been conducted to date and that those that have been done typically involved questionnaire surveys conducted by air crew, or clinical examinations of small self-selected samples of air crew. I urge the Minister to read some of the papers by Michaelis, Winder, Coxon, Harper, Burdon, Somers and Heuser, and Mackenzie Ross, whom I have mentioned already. That is the sort of evidence that should raise the Minister’s eyebrows and make him wake up to the problems that we are facing and the fact that Governments have successively turned their back on the issues. The air crew reports show that they suffer from a range of different symptoms, including respiratory, gastro-intestinal and neuro-behavioural problems. However, little can be concluded from work on small, self-selected samples, other than that further research is warranted.

If the Minister has not already seen it, I urge him to watch the video documentary called “Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines,” which was put together by Captain Tristan Loraine, who is chairman of the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive. He has been a pilot for 19 years and he has spent seven years researching the subject. If the Minister does not know Captain Loraine, I shall be happy to introduce him. I am sure that a copy of the video can be supplied. The documentary prompted a BBC “Panorama” follow-up and I understand that another film is on the way. The issue is not disappearing and I hope the Minister will recognise that.

The risks in planes are being ignored. We need honest research and a serious recognition that aerotoxic syndrome can affect pilots. Incidents of contaminated air events on commercial aircraft are difficult to quantify because they do not have air quality monitoring systems on board. That means there is no way to judge the problem because the filter measuring systems are not in place. There is an irony in relation to that because Federal Aviation Administration regulation 2002 states:

FAA rulemaking has not kept pace with public expectation and concern about air quality and does not afford explicit protection from particulate matter and other chemical and biological hazards”.

In effect, the FAA is saying that all aircraft should have some form of measuring facility on board. I am not aware of any aircraft that have that, so the Government are already in violation of their own rules. The Minister also needs to address that matter.

An organisation in another part of the industry that has commented on the problem is Rolls-Royce, which has acknowledged:

“Any oil leaking from an engine, entering the aircraft customer bleed offtake, is classified as hazardous”.

That is a comment from the engine maker itself. One small movement in the right direction has, in fact, come from one of the main companies that produces the oils for the aircraft company. A French oil company has conceded that oils are dangerous if they are inhaled, and that they can cause respiratory problems and affect the growth of small babies and so on. That is a minor step in the right direction, but there is an awfully long way to go.

I ask the Minister to recognise the scale of the problem and not to look at it as a case of liability. Those who have suffered from illnesses are not looking for some form of compensation. Yes, of course, they are angry at the system and they are angry at the Government for not doing anything about it. However, they just want planes that are safe and for people not to have to go through the same pain that they have gone through. It would not require an awful lot of money to include filters or air monitoring systems on aircraft. Those are the positive steps that many people—pilots, passengers and so on—are calling for from the Government. They want the Government to confirm that that is the direction they want to take. They do not want the Government to say, “Right, let’s get the industry to admit liability” and then go through the whole legal rigmarole of compensation. I wish to make it clear that those affected by TCP do not want that; they just want the Government to wake up and recognise the changes that are required.

There have been some investigations by the Department for Transport and, indeed, the Department of Health. In 2000, the Department for Transport asked the Committee on Toxicity to look at these issues. I am sure that the Minister will probably lean heavily on its report in his rebuff. In the last couple of years, the committee has come back with a follow-up report. The committee’s final assessment was that more research was needed. The Minister may well pluck another quote from the report that says this, that or the other, but the bottom line is that a couple of years ago, the COT said that more research was needed. I am pleased to see that the Minister is nodding because that means he recognises that. I hope we will perhaps hear today what research will be done, because obviously there are questions to be asked.

The COT also recommended that two types of study be commissioned: the exposure monitoring study, which is the on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft, and the further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure, such as type of aircraft flown. That is a very complicated way of saying that we need to understand the health and welfare of pilots a little better when they are flying aircraft.

The Department for Transport commissioned Cranfield university to undertake the exposure monitoring study. That was not done through a process of competitive tender; the contract was simply awarded to Cranfield. Will the Minister explain why the study was not put out to tender and why it was given to an organisation that might be considered sympathetic to the industry? To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission a cross-sectional neuropsychological study. That was the second aspect of the COT’s request, but it has not happened. I hope that the Government will wake up to that.

What can the Government do? They need to stop burying their head in the sand and wake up to the responsibility of office. That is exactly what Governments should do. They should also be able to make tough decisions that might have major consequences for powerful sectors of industry—in this case, the airline industry. First, the Government should recognise that the problem exists and that the Department for Transport has taken no steps to ensure that passengers and crew are informed about the possibilities of being exposed to contaminated air.

Secondly, the Government should conduct a proper inquiry, and collate proper evidence and data via air-monitoring systems on board passenger aircraft so that we know exactly which chemicals are entering the aircraft during a contaminated air event, and in what quantity. At present, the incidence of contaminated air events is hard to determine, as I said. Air crew state that under-reporting is common due to fears about job security and so on.

Thirdly, very much based on the outcome of those reports, the Government should make some firm decisions on the direction that the airline industry should take. They should decide whether a redesign of the aircraft is required, or whether filtering systems need to be put in to make engines safer.

I have spoken for a good 20 minutes on this subject, and I apologise to hon. Members who wish to speak. However, the debate is overdue and serious, and the Minister has some questions to answer. I have raised various issues. If he is unable to provide answers today, I should be grateful if he could write to me, because I intend to pursue the matter most vigorously. I do not believe that we can end a debate in Westminster Hall, pat ourselves on the back and say, “Yes, we have dealt with the issue. We can now move on to something else.” We need change in the industry, and we need to understand exactly what is going wrong. We need to ensure that when people get on an aircraft, they feel safe.

Photo of John Maples John Maples Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:51 pm, 1st July 2009

My hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood has laid out most of the case that, had I been in his position, I would have laid out. I am grateful to him for instituting this debate.

I wish to add a couple of points. I got involved with this subject two or three years ago because a constituent of mine, John Hoyte, one of the founders of the Aerotoxic Association, came to see me about it. Since then, I have had a great deal of correspondence with various parts of the Government and various parts of the industry. My constituent lost his licence on medical grounds while working for Flybe but is now in the process of trying to get it back. He is convinced that, in essence, oil fumes poisoned him. Organophosphates were found in his blood, as they have been in the blood of many other pilots who are convinced that they have been affected by the same problem.

I do not remember how long ago it was—perhaps some of my colleagues do—but there was a terrible problem with sheep dip affecting people. The problem was caused by organophosphates, which we know are a terrible poison. Organophosphates are awful neurotoxins which cause serious neurological problems if they get into one’s blood. I have seen some medical evidence, and Dr. Mackenzie Ross’s study, which is due to be completed soon—if it is not by now complete—is looking at cases. I would be interested if the Minister brought us up to date on that.

Since becoming involved with this issue, I have had correspondence, mainly with the Department for Transport and the Committee on Toxicity, about the Cranfield study. What disturbs me about it is how long it has taken; no doubt the Minister will update us on that. If it has reported in the past few days—it is due to report—and I missed it, I apologise, but I do not think it has. In January, I was told that it was about half complete but that the other half had to be commissioned from someone else. I hope that that has been done.

It is not the most complicated thing to investigate the air going into the cabins of airliners. I understand that a German device measures any toxins in the fumes in aeroplanes. I am not sure why this is taking so long. I have consistently found in correspondence a resistance even to acknowledging that there is a problem or the possibility of one. I could understand that view on the part of the airlines—it would be a huge issue for them to replace the air pressurisation systems on aircraft if that proves necessary. The problem seems to occur more often in one or two models of aircraft than in others. My hon. Friend’s point about the new Boeing not having this system makes one wonder if Boeing did not realise there was a problem and that it should perhaps deal with it, so that at least the planes produced in the next 30 years could not be accused of poisoning pilots and passengers.

I am interested in where the Cranfield and Mackenzie Ross studies are. I understand that they deal with the two aspects of the problem: the medical evidence, and the question of whether fumes are entering aircraft ventilation systems. “Obstructive” would be too strong a word, but I have found an unwillingness to engage constructively in argument on the part of the DFT, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Committee on Toxicity, the air accidents investigation branch of the CAA and even, surprisingly, the British Air Line Pilots Association. I do not know why BALPA has not taken a more aggressive interest in the matter. After all, it is the pilots’ union. One would have thought that this issue would be one of its prime responsibilities, but it seems reluctant not only to engage in correspondence but, as I said, even to admit that there may be a problem.

I hope that I am not right in thinking that there has been obstruction. There certainly has been an unwillingness to talk about the problem. My hon. Friend has picked an appropriate moment to have this debate. If the two studies are not in the Minister’s hands, they are about to be, and I have no doubt that he will bring us up to date on them.

We really need to know definitively whether there is a problem with aircraft ventilation systems, whether it is causing the medical conditions that pilots are reporting, and, if so, what needs to be done. Alternatively, if the conditions are being caused by something else, we need to get to the bottom of that. There seems to be a great deal of substantial evidence backed up by too many “coincidences” for this to be an accident and there to be nothing in it.

I look forward to the Minister’s bringing us up to date on the matter, and I hope we will get from the Government timely and constructive progress in dealing with the problem and bringing the studies to a conclusion.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:55 pm, 1st July 2009

I congratulate Mr. Ellwood on introducing this debate on an important matter. I agree with virtually everything that he said. I apologise for being 55 seconds late and not arriving for the beginning of his remarks.

This is a serious issue. It is worth putting on the record that it has, in fact, been raised many times in this House with successive Ministers by Members of all parties. The problem with contaminated air in aircraft stays while Ministers move on—upwards, outwards and sideways—at a bewildering rate. Many of us who have campaigned on the issue for some time find ourselves trying to explain to new Ministers the same problem that we have explained to previous ones.

Indeed, the issue predates my involvement. I note that my colleague Lord Tyler, who was then the Member for North Cornwall, raised the matter in a debate in the House on 28 June 2000. On that occasion, speaking about the use of organophosphates as a lubricant in aircraft engines, he referred specifically to the BAe 146, an aircraft that presents a particular problem and about which there have been many complaints. He stated that

“the House will recognise that the issue is important. The health of pilots, crew and passengers could be affected...I find alarming the apparent complacency of the United Kingdom authorities. We have known for some time that those potentially lethal chemicals are used as lubricants in aircraft engines—not only fixed-wing aircraft but in helicopters...Ministers still show the most extraordinary and breathtaking complacency.”—[Hansard, 28 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 205-06WH.]

That was in 2000, yet here we are in 2009 having not made much progress on solving a serious matter.

The issue has been raised by Members across the House. It was raised by Mr. Brazier in written questions that he has tabled. I have tabled questions, as have Labour Members such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and others. An early-day motion on the issue was signed by 72 Members last year. The Government cannot be under any illusion that this is not regarded as a serious matter on both sides of the House. Therefore, it is particularly disappointing that we are still waiting for real progress to be made.

While we wait for progress to be made, we still have a prevalence of incidents. In 2007, 116 contaminated air events were reported to the Civil Aviation Authority. The number of cases reported annually is rising. In 2006, it was 109—there were 78 in 2005. There are more complaints about some aircraft than others, which supports the point made earlier. It seems that some aircraft are more disposed to the problem than others. The Boeing 757 was involved in 43 such cases, out of 109, in 2006; and the BAe 146, of which fewer exist, was involved in 17 incidents—the second highest number of any aircraft.

The Government, in a previous departmental incarnation as the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, stated on 21 January 2000 that

“fumes from the engines can only enter the aircraft cabin if an engine seal fails, which is a very rare event—around one failure for every 22,000 flights.”

That was the Government’s official position in 2000, but the Minister’s predecessor—now the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jim Fitzpatrick—stated on 6 May 2009:

“There are however occasional bad smells or ‘fume events’ during flights, which are estimated to occur on approximately 0.05 per cent. of flights overall (one in 2000).”—[Hansard, 6 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 192W.]

So we have gone from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. One wonders how much further that statistic will drop before there is action to deal with the points in question.

Research by the German or Swiss broadcaster that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned suggests that contaminated air was present in 28 out of 30 tested cabins. Furthermore, 106 Boeing 757 pilots surveyed reported more than 1,660 incidents during their careers, many of which were thought to be associated with contaminated air. A similar survey of 250 current and retired British BAe 146 pilots found that 85 per cent. believed that they were breathing contaminated air while flying. More than half of them—an enormous number of pilots—reported symptoms of ill health relating to air contamination, and nearly one in 10 had to be retired on health grounds. An enormous toll is being taken on professional people, with seemingly little being done about it.

There have been incidents elsewhere in the world. In May 2009, a former flight attendant won civil damages for respiratory damage, having been exposed to contaminated air, in the case of Turner v. Eastwest Airlines Ltd. In October 2007, staff at Flybe refused to board the company’s fleet of BAe 146 aircraft, saying that poor air quality was putting them and their passengers at risk. That came about after two stewardesses collapsed during a flight and all seven crew members had to be taken to hospital. Flybe subsequently announced that it would phase out BAe 146s for commercial reasons. That seems to be the nearest thing to what might be called an out-of-court settlement. I agree with hon. Members’ comments on how interesting it is that we are now adopting a new form of producing air for cabins or, perhaps, reverting to what was originally there before bleed air was introduced in the 1960s.

There is no question but that this is a serious matter. The Government have said that they recognise there is an issue, and I do not wish to suggest that they are being less helpful than they are, because they have been willing to engage and have answered parliamentary questions. I met the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town, along with Lord Tyler and the Countess of Mar. I believe that Ministers are genuinely concerned about this matter and are taking it forward, but I hope they get the message from today’s debate that they are not taking it forward far enough or fast enough. People are at risk as we speak, including pilots, passengers and crew. I am dismayed that it is taking such a long time to get the results of studies that the Government have instigated.

I asked the Minister’s predecessor on 6 May why the research project on cabin air quality had been allocated to Cranfield. I say “allocated” because no European Union public procurement procedures seem to have been invoked on that occasion. He replied:

“The research project was tendered under the single tender procedure and approved in April 2007. Due to the complex logistics and the need for a project manager to develop protocols, this research could not be specified as a normal tender. Following the tender, Cranfield university was chosen by the Department, in consultation with the Department of Health, the Civil Aviation Authority, BALPA (largest pilot trade union) and airlines.”—[Hansard, 6 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 193W.]

Although that may be a realistic exercise, eyebrows would be raised if it were not tendered. An explanation has been given, but I hope that the Minister accepts that, because of the long delays—not necessarily since the project was allocated, although there have been delays since then—going back to 2000 and beyond, which I have mentioned, there appears to be an element of playing for time on somebody’s part until aircraft are phased out and the problem goes away. I do not necessarily wish to suggest that that is absolutely the case, because I cannot prove it. Nevertheless, putting the circumstances together, one gets circumstantial evidence that suggests there may be some element of truth in my assumption.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening with the Cranfield study, including when it will report. I hope he will tell us that there should be an open inquiry into this issue, because the public at large, and the pilots in particular, want to be confident that it is being seriously addressed. We need an open forum of some sort—I would hesitate to use a public inquiry as a forum—with opportunity for cross-examination, whereby people can test the theories, put forward their views and scrutinise those taking decisions and making assumptions on our behalf.

My colleague Lord Tyler asked a parliamentary question in the other place on 20 February 2007:

“Whether the Department for Transport will participate in research on cabin air quality by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.”

Lord Bassam, answering for the Government, indicated that the Department was

“discussing with the Federal Aviation Administration...the possibility of collaborative research.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 February 2007; Vol. 689, c. WA215.]

Can the Minister give any further information on the collaboration that clearly was under way, or at least under consideration, back in February 2007?

Let me raise two other matters relating to cabin air quality that are entirely different to the substantive matter we are discussing. First, under an international aviation agreement, insecticides are sprayed in the cabin on flights from particular countries, presumably to kill off insects that may be brought into this country or elsewhere. Having done quite a lot of work on pesticides, I do not regard that as a safe procedure. One of the first issues that I ever took up as a campaigner was pesticides, and that is one reason why I am in politics. It does not seem entirely safe for large amounts of insecticide to be sprayed in a plane before it lands, sometimes over food, irrespective of whether children are present, with no proper warning or safeguards in place and in a confined atmosphere. I should like the Minister to tell me now or in writing what assessment has been made of the potential health implications of that practice, not necessarily for a fully healthy person but for a vulnerable person with previous exposure to pesticides. The first time I went on a long-distance flight and experienced that, I had no pre-knowledge of it. Someone who is vulnerable to pesticides—insecticides—through exposure to them on farms, for example, and has lost resistance to them could be sprayed without their knowledge. That is worrying. I would grateful if the Minister took up that issue.

My second point concerns air quality on board for individuals who require extra oxygen for health reasons. The Minister may be aware that airlines have vastly differing practices regarding allowing oxygen on board. I have had representations on this matter from the British Lung Foundation and others, who are concerned at the wide variations in practice across the industry. There is even resistance from some airlines to anyone bringing on board extra oxygen at all, even if they pay for it themselves. A person’s requirement for extra oxygen is effectively a disability, and we should not be discriminating against people with such a health need. I should like the Minister to ensure that there is a process whereby airlines supply extra oxygen to those who identify themselves as needing it; or, at least, to ensure that no obstacle is put in their way if they wish to bring extra oxygen on board.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:08 pm, 1st July 2009

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr. McCrea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Ellwood on making a typically well-researched, thorough speech. In securing the debate, he has done us all a favour and has given us an opportunity to focus on something that a number of hon. Members have been concerned about for a long time. As a pilot, he has brought particular knowledge to the subject. We have had a good short debate, including a contribution by my hon. Friend Mr. Maples. I also enjoyed listening to Norman Baker. I share the genuine concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East about the contamination of air supply to commercial aircraft cabins.

I pay tribute to the campaign by the Global Cabin Air Quality Executive for raising awareness of the issue, and in particular to Captain Tristan Loraine, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned, and to Captain Susan Michaelis, who have done so much to raise the profile of this issue in the public spectrum. The campaign is made up of professional pilots and is assisted by scientific experts who are well placed to research and comment on the matter, one of whom—Dr. Sarah Mackenzie Ross—figured in my hon. Friend’s speech.

The campaign argues that a number of pilots have been severely brain-damaged by cabin air pollution, and that the lives of passengers and crews are being put at risk, as my hon. Friend set out in some detail. Dr. Mackenzie Ross considered those issues in her studies and specifically looked at flight crews, not only because they are more frequently exposed and therefore principally at risk, so we are more likely to see effects among them, but because of the obvious point that the lives of everyone on board a modern aeroplane would be put at risk if the pilot was seriously affected or, worse still, if the pilot and the co-pilot were seriously affected at the same time.

When simulators are used to investigate the decisions taken by flight-deck crew, factors such as tiredness are sometimes assessed, but there are no tests to establish what happens when the quality of decision making is deliberately downgraded. If that is the case, and that is what I have heard from the industry, it suggests that different sectors have different approaches. Most people believe that being a pilot is more difficult than being a driver, but a number of organisations, including the Institute of Advanced Motorists, have done extensive tests on drivers, subjecting them to a variety of things that would impair their decision making, such as large quantities of alcohol or having to talk on a mobile phone while driving a difficult route.

Dr. Mackenzie Ross has found that cabin air is sometimes contaminated with hydraulic fluids and synthetic jet oils, which contain the chemicals described by my hon. Friend. Those chemicals are potentially highly neurotoxic and are, as he said, found in a variety of other sources, including agricultural chemicals. Most famously, they were also behind Gulf war syndrome. In 2007, about 350 UK aircrew advised their union that they may be suffering physical and psychological ill health following exposure to contaminated air.

Dr. Mackenzie Ross has argued that the incidence of contaminated-air events on commercial and military aircraft is difficult to quantify because of the lack of monitoring systems. I do not want to repeat everything that my hon. Friend said, but the study that he quoted is significant. In 2003, the British Airline Pilots Association said that only 61 out of 1,667 contaminated-air events were recorded. In other words, only about 4 per cent. of incidents were making the records, for all the reasons that he gave.

The Minister should set up an awareness campaign among aircrew to look at the dangers of air contamination and at how to report contamination events. I will be making a number of other points, but that is one of the most basic. Aircrew—I hope that the union will show some leadership on this—should be actively encouraged to report problems. I would also like to know what steps the Minister will take to ensure that passengers are informed when they have been exposed to a contamination event.

Unlike in a building, passengers in the pressurised cabin of a plane are totally dependent on the air supplied by the plane once the doors have been closed—obviously, they cannot open a window. Today, that always means bleed air from the main engine. In most aircraft, air is bled off at a temperature of at least 400° C. It then goes through a heat exchanger and ductwork before being delivered to a manifold, where it is mixed with re-circulated air. I am told that the heat exchanger and ductwork in most aircraft are never cleaned and that no regime is in place to ensure that airlines do such work—indeed, there is no regime or regulation in place even to establish whether airlines do it. Even the air conditioning systems in a decent hotel room are subject to a regime of filter changes and duct cleaning, and people in a hotel room can open the window.

Everyone present will agree that air supply needs to be safe. It is widely recognised that all aircraft are subject, to some extent, to occasional engine oil leaks, but certain types are subject to many more, and my hon. Friend picked out the BAe 146 and the Boeing 757. The CAA database for 2004 recorded that 72 flights experienced contaminated air, although the low reporting rate, to which we have all alluded, suggests that up to 2,000 flights in the UK may have experienced contaminated-air events in that year. It is clear that the process by which air is delivered to the cabins of commercial airliners is potentially flawed. It does not guarantee the quality of air for breathing, and no mechanisms appear to be in place even to monitor air quality, let alone to ensure that air is safe.

Such issues are increasingly recognised. My hon. Friend referred to Boeing’s decision on the 787—the so-called Dreamliner—and it is interesting to look at what Boeing said about it. Boeing was invited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee to make a submission and it did so in writing. It said:

“The Boeing 787 will have a no-bleed architecture for the outside air supply to the cabin. This architecture eliminates the risk of engine oil decomposition products...being introduced in the cabin supply air”.

The fact that the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer takes that view provides compelling evidence that there is an issue to address. My hon. Friend also mentioned Rolls-Royce, which, as far back as 2003, said:

“Any oil leaking from an engine, entering the aircraft customer bleed offtake, is classified as hazardous”.

Another independent expert on the subject, who comes from the opposite side of the world, is the Royal Australian air force’s head of aviation medicine research, Dr. Singh Bhupinder. He has spoken out at international conferences, making it clear that he, too, believes there is a real issue to address.

Will the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking in conjunction with the CAA to ensure that the passenger air supply on aeroplanes operates at a safe level of toxicity? Everybody in the Chamber recognises that the airline industry is struggling, and it is worrying to see the country’s national airline appeal to staff to work without pay, while a whole string of small, struggling airports, many of which are highly geared, are on the edge financially. I am the last person to want to put extra burdens on a struggling industry at such a time, but the fact is that people’s lives and the long-term health of crew members are at stake. It is therefore strange that the Department for Transport has done little quality research on the subject.

When the Department asked the Committee on Toxicity—an independent body that advises the Government, including, incidentally, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on agricultural issues—to review all the available evidence, the committee was unable to arrive at firm conclusions. As my hon. Friend said, however, it recommended further research to determine what substances are released via the bleed air system and whether exposure to those substances could result in acute or chronic ill health. The committee recommended two types of study: first, an exposure monitoring study, with on-board monitoring of air quality on a number of aircraft; and, secondly, further investigation of neuropsychological functioning in pilots via a cross-sectional epidemiological study using proxy measures of exposure.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the Department giving the first study to Cranfield university. Cranfield has an excellent record, and I do not want to be critical of it, but it is very nearly an in-house organisation. Indeed, its staff include quite a number of Government employees, including quite a lot of uniformed people—indeed, my father-in-law worked there at one point. There is therefore a legitimate concern that simply giving the study to Cranfield, rather than putting it out to competitive tender, raises serious questions over whether the investigation is independent. To date, the Department for Transport has refused to commission the second study—the cross-sectional neuropsychological study—but the Minister may be able to update us on that. Will he tell us why the first study could not be put out to competitive tender, and where we have got to on the second study?

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about co-operation with the FAA, and I repeat the question. I have had complaints from people involved in the campaign that we have dragged our feet in co-operating with the FAA when Britain could have made a significant difference.

The hon. Member for Brighton—

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Lewes. Brighton is a suburb of Lewes.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

Indeed; like Newcastle and Gateshead.

The other issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is oxygen on flights, and it is a serious concern. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the early-day motion has attracted more than 200 signatures. There is a legitimate point to consider. A safe air supply for people who require oxygen must involve the presence of cylinders to top up their need for greater concentration. I hope that the Minister will update us on that.

Contamination of aircraft cabins by engine oil fumes is a serious aviation safety concern for both aircrew and passengers. There is significant evidence to warrant going beyond just a bit more study to get to the bottom of the matter. I hope that the Government will today make it clear that they will urgently and thoroughly investigate the problem so that the necessary steps to make crew and passengers safe on our aeroplanes are taken.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:22 pm, 1st July 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, in this important debate, and I congratulate Mr. Ellwood on securing it. The issue is serious, and I say that genuinely. However, we must talk about facts and real evidence, and there has been an awful lot of speculation in some of the contributions. I want to answer hon. Members’ questions as clearly as possible, and to show that this country has been at the forefront in taking forward some of the current work. Bearing in mind the depth of knowledge of some hon. Members, I am sure that they are well aware of that. I will explain where we are, and answer as many questions as clearly and thoroughly as I can.

Air quality in commercial passenger aircraft is high, and much of the information that we have heard today would be worrying for anyone who is thinking of travelling on a plane. To put the matter into perspective, Norman Baker referred to numbers and said that the Government had reduced the number of events from one in 22,000 to one in 2,000. The Committee on Toxicity estimated in 2007 that fume events occurred in approximately 0.05 per cent. of flights, or one in 2,000. In 2008, 97 contaminated air events were reported to the CAA under the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme from 1.2 million passenger and cargo flights by UK carriers.

Of the 97 reported occurrences of contaminated air by aircraft type, 38 were on a Boeing 757, 19 were on an Airbus 319, and six were on an Airbus 320. Some hon. Members referred to British Aerospace’s BAe 146, and there were two reported occurrences in 2008 for that aircraft. They asked why such fume events happen, and why nothing has been done in any shape or form. Mechanical system malfunctions occur and may result in abnormal operating conditions, but the CAA has taken remedial action to help operators of specific aircraft to reduce the incidence of fume events, such as engine oil servicing procedures and engine sealing modifications. Those are some of the steps that have been taken to help the industry and those who work on planes and travel by air. It is essential to ensure that health and safety provisions for both categories of people are of the highest level.

I recognise the concern that has been raised, but we must have evidence, and we have undertaken work on that. I assure everyone who is listening to our debate and those who read Hansard that it is not a proven fact that cabin air harms health. Hon. Members rightly said that work on that should be done and should continue, and I intend to show that it is being done, and that we have the highest quality of studies.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Minister said that there is no proof that cabin air causes problems. Does he think that stewardesses and pilots collapsing with brain damage is a coincidence?

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that I am saying that we need evidence to conclude that such fume events cause those illnesses. I am not suggesting that they have not happened, but to ensure that they do not happen again, we must know exactly what causes them. That is why research is necessary. It is complex research and it is being done as we speak.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

To return to the Minister’s figures, he said that approximately 100 events were recorded in a year. Several of us mentioned the study that suggested that only 4 per cent. of events are recorded, but if the average number of passengers on the aircraft on which such events took place was 150, 15,000 passengers would be affected. If 4 per cent. of those are reported, 25 x 15,000 is about one third of a million passengers affected in a single year. That does not mean that all were brain damaged, but it provides an idea of the scale of what we are talking about, especially as no one denies the link between organophosphates and brain damage.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that no one denies that link, but 97 reported occurrences does not mean that they led to x, y or z occurrences of illness or disease. The jump to the calculations that he just made about 15,000 passengers being affected and so on is a big leap. I am sure that we all want to make certain that the evidence exists, so that we can ensure that if there is a problem, we can take the necessary steps to eradicate it, but again, that is not straightforward.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Let me make some headway and I will give way shortly. I want to deal with this issue. There seems to be a suggestion that people are not reporting incidents because they do not want to rock the boat. Well, the mandatory occurrence reporting scheme—MORS—was established in 1976. It is regarded worldwide as a safety reporting model and is used in many other areas. It exists to ensure that the CAA is advised of hazardous or potentially hazardous incidents and defects. In addition, even if what hon. Members have alluded to is the case and employees will not report incidents, there is a confidential reporting line to the CAA, which is called CHIRP—the confidential human factors incident reporting programme. That is for those who do not want to let their employer know that they are reporting such an occurrence. It would therefore be wrong to say that the reporting system does not help employees to report occurrences. It does. That facility exists through both MORS and the confidential route.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

With respect to the Minister, we have ample time in which to debate these issues. I am pleased that he is taking interventions, but there is still another half hour to go—plenty of time for us to debate. He has spent 10 minutes arguing about statistics, and they can be read in different ways. He began his remarks by saying that this is a serious issue. I would like to move on to the action points—what he intends to do—and I think that he wants to move on to that, too.

On the point that he is making now, however, does he agree that, rather than depending entirely on whether a pilot comes forward to make a report, it is time that we had a monitoring system to measure the quality of air on aircraft? That would be an independent way of checking whether the toxins are making it on board, as opposed to leaning heavily on the reports written by pilots, who might or might not fill out a form.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am delighted to say that that is exactly what I want to move on to, which is why I did not particularly want to give way again. I do want to get to some of the substance of the debate, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, the reporting procedures have to be one of the first stages of dealing with the issue, which we all agree is important and needs investigation. We cannot allow the reporting system to be undermined in a way that suggests that it is not robust. That is why I wanted to deal with that at the outset.

Most modern commercial aircraft are fitted with high efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filters, which are extremely efficient at removing airborne contaminants such as droplets, bacteria and large viral particles. Typically, the air in the cabin is exchanged every two to three minutes. This is the only country that I know of in which there is a general duty to safeguard the health of persons aboard aircraft. Our commercial aviation safety record is second to none. That is a hard-won reputation, and it has been won by all players in the industry and all staff who work in the industry. As I said, we are the only country in the world with a duty to safeguard the health of persons on board aircraft—the health of the travelling passengers as well as employees. The Civil Aviation Act 2006 amended the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to charge the Secretary of State with

“the general duty of organising, carrying out and encouraging measures for safeguarding the health of persons on board aircraft.”

The functions of the CAA were also amended to include the health of persons on board aircraft. That change is a world first, as far as we know, and was welcomed by Parliament. It follows that we take the issues of safety and air quality in passenger planes extremely seriously.

We have a good story to tell on the research that we have put in hand to try to get to the bottom of cabin air fume events. Occasionally there are bad smells or fume events, as they are referred to, during flights, and those have been reported on a number of aircraft types that are used around the world. That is a valid point: we must remember that this is not a UK-only matter. It raises issues that we need to take into account. Reports to the CAA show that sometimes one pilot reports a bad smell and the other detects nothing. An unpleasant smell is undesirable but does not necessarily harm health. That is partly the point that I was making to Mr. Brazier. Conversely, carbon monoxide has no smell, yet it kills people in their homes every year.

Pilots who have experienced fume events report a variety of short or long-term symptoms of ill health, but it is not certain that those symptoms are work-related. Reports of those events are very infrequent. As I said, the figures for 2008 show that there were 97 reported contaminated air fume events. That is out of 1.2 million flights.

So what has been done, bearing in mind the small number of fume events? First, we commissioned the independent Committee on Toxicity—a panel made up of toxicologists from various universities, not Government stooges. They completed a substantial review of evidence in September 2007 and concluded that the evidence available did not establish a link between cabin air and pilot ill health, nor did it rule one out. We have therefore begun innovative research to investigate concerns about potential contaminants in cabin air and to try to fill the gap in knowledge identified by the Committee on Toxicity. Again, we are leading the world in that work.

No one has previously captured samples of cabin air during normal conditions and fume events and analysed them to see what substances they contain and in what concentrations. The science is difficult, because fume events are unpredictable and can last only a couple of minutes—if that, in some cases. We have that research in hand as a priority. To date, we have commissioned functionality tests to identify equipment capable of capturing fume events in real time. The report was published on 21 February 2008. We are now confident that we have the equipment that will do the job. We have begun a more substantive phase of in-flight functionality tests to assemble data on the substances in the cabin air during fume events. That work builds on the equipment and methodology tested in the first phase. Several airlines volunteered to take part by allowing an independent scientist to come on board with sampling equipment. Testing began in 2008 and is continuing in 2009.

The tests to identify suitable scientific equipment capable of capturing fume events were peer-reviewed by scientists in the UK, Europe and the USA. It is important that peer review happens. The matter does not pertain only to the UK or UK aircraft. It is relevant across the aviation world. Future work in that area will be similarly peer-reviewed before publication.

I shall deal with some of the specific issues raised before moving on to other matters. We heard that Flybe is no longer flying the British Aerospace 146. The company has upgraded its fleet, as all airlines do, for a variety of reasons, not least to stay competitive and to ensure efficiency. However, it does not say that it was to do with air contamination. I realise what is being said, but it was a great leap to suggest that Flybe got rid of its BAE 146 fleet because of contamination. Indeed, I have already pointed out that the last reported statistics show only two cases in that time. It is a leap of faith to say that the company did it purely because of problems of contamination; that is not the case.

It is far too premature to draw an analogy with Gulf war syndrome. A substantial amount of work has yet to be done on that. However, military service is not directly comparable to working in private commercial employment. Our primary aim has to be to get evidence of what occurs during fume events, to see what contaminates are released, and to analyse them.

G

Mr Clark raises 2 very important points which then beg a question:

1. He states "Most modern commercial aircraft are fitted with high efficiency particulate air HEPA filters, which are extremely efficient at removing airborne contaminants such as droplets, bacteria and LARGE viral particles." (..........not the small ones like ..... er ..... flu!)

2. He immediately goes on to quote from the Civil Aviation Act 2006 that charges the Secretary of State with this:

"the general duty of organising, carrying out and encouraging measures for safeguarding the health of persons on board aircraft."

So if I mention that there is another kind of air handling technology - UV-C - and this would solve the problems, then please would he implement it as standard in British aircraft, and pass on the message to the Health Secretary, whose department are not very good at answering their mail or keeping up with the latest technology and research.

I can refer him to an expert on the subject and plenty of documented evidence via http://www.relax-well.co.uk.

Submitted by Grace Filby

Photo of John Maples John Maples Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Has the Minister moved on from the toxicity study? If so, will he tell us when it is expected to report? People are anxious to know. They are grateful that the study is taking place, but they want to know when they will receive the answers.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I have indicated that the work is continuing; it is being done in conjunction with specific airlines, which have offered to help with the study. That work is being undertaken now. We expect it to continue for the majority of the year, and then to be written up. It will then be peer-tested, unless there is anything of particular alarm. It has to be peer-tested for the reasons that I gave. We expect the report to be published in the early part of next year.

I should explain the work undertaken by Professor van Netten at the university of British Columbia. We wrote to the professor, asking for further information on whether the samples were taken with the airlines’ authority and transported in sterile conditions to guarantee that they were free of extraneous contamination. He replied:

“I have no further information...Most importantly, however, accurate in-flight air concentration measurements are needed. Only then can a proper assessment be made if TCP exposure is indeed a problem or can be eliminated.”

That is precisely what we are seeking to achieve with the current research project.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East cited studies from Germany and Australia that concluded that the air was contaminated. I am not aware that Australian or German airlines have banned any of those aircraft. Again, the evidence to date is not robust or clear enough to convince the regulator.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I am saddened by the direction taken by the Minister. He seems to be trying to knock away every bit of evidence that has been put to him. He is right to say that the tests are difficult to do on planes and that they cannot be done in laboratory conditions. However, the point has been made that there is enough evidence to raise eyebrows. For the Minister to lean on a report that is not to be published for a couple of years suggests that the Government are not taking the matter as seriously as they should. I posed a firm question to the Minister: I asked whether it was time to install monitoring systems in aircraft. He did not give a reply. I pose the same question again.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The Government are leading world research into the very issues that are of concern both to the hon. Gentleman and to me as Minister. We must ensure that we have the evidence, and thus know exactly what the issues are, so that if we find evidence that gives cause for concern, we can then help and protect those who work in the industry and those who travel by air. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it will have to be based on the evidence. This Government and this country are leading that research. He is right that it will not be done be in laboratory conditions. That makes it genuinely more difficult to ensure that we get the systems and processes needed to get precisely the evidence that he and I seek.

I express my thanks to those airlines that have made their aircraft, their pilots and their management time available to the research effort, especially as they have done so free of charge. It is no exaggeration to say that without that help the work could not have progressed, as sadly was the case in the USA, where such joint working was not possible. I assure the House that the research is entirely independent of industry. It has been suggested that it was industry-led, but the Government and the taxpayer are paying for it—to the tune of approximately £500,000.

Cranfield university, the project manager, is actively engaged on the cabin air sampling programme, and about 40 of the planned 100 flights have now been tested by scientists on board. Samples are being taken by named individuals, who have received special briefing by Cranfield to ensure a consistent methodology and a secure chain of custody for delivering the samples to the laboratories for analysis. It is likely that this phase of the research will last until the end of the year. The logistics are complex, which is why it cannot be done sooner. Equally, we want to ensure that the work is not open to substantial challenge because procedures and so on were not followed.

We lost some months recently because of internal procurement procedures, but those delays were important in enabling us to test that we were getting value for money in what are obviously tight departmental research budgets. I am pleased to say that those hurdles have been overcome and that the research continues.

The project manager is Professor Helen Muir, an aviation safety expert at Cranfield. The project also has the support of Cranfield Health and two external laboratories. The research design was overseen by a steering group, which includes a number of independent occupational hygiene experts, a British Air Line Pilots Association pilot and the Health Protection Agency. It reports to the aviation health working group, the members of which include trade union representatives, the Air Transport Users Council, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive. It is a robust reporting system. We needed an organisation that was familiar with aircraft and with which airlines would work. That is not what happened in the USA, where airlines did not make aircraft available for air sampling. It is essential, therefore, to have an organisation that can undertake such complex work.

Once completed, the findings will be peer-reviewed, before being published as a whole, and I hope that that will be as soon as is practicable. The Chamber will understand that we are filling a gap in knowledge. Fume events are unpredictable and can last less than a minute. There are no published studies of air sampling during fume events. The only way to resolve the issue is with top-quality science of a standard necessary to encourage aviation regulators to take the action required. I am confident that Cranfield will give us the best scientific picture possible in what happens during a fume event. Any regulatory action required will have to be taken, as far as the EU is concerned, by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Hon. Members will be aware that EASA will not take any regulatory action without sound evidence, which is why it is critical that our pioneering, world-leading research is robust and responsive.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East claimed that the Government are basically doing nothing. I have already indicated that we are leading the world. The issues are not being ignored, as I hope he will recognise in the light of my comments so far.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I have a letter from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which is one of the main engineering associations in the United States of America, and is very influential in writing quality standards that are then adopted by the regulatory authorities. The letter asks Ministers to introduce sensors on to flights. The society, and others in America, have done a lot of work on this matter, so it would be a bit disingenuous to say that we are leading the way. If we were, the report would have been ready for us to discuss today, and we would be talking about actions, rather than about when it will be published. This letter, which I am happy to provide to the Minister, if he has not seen it, requests that sensors to measure toxins be put on to aircraft now.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The report will do exactly that necessary detailed research, in conjunction with the private airlines with which we are working closely on the monitoring work. We are involving their staff, as well as independent, on-board scientists, in the work that we all want done.

We accepted, and are now acting on, COT’s recommendation for further work to be done. Mr. Maples referred to COT and raised various other issues. COT arranged for an independent review to be carried out by Professor Morris, who is professor of neuropsychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s college hospital. His report said that the association between flying and neuropsychological abnormality

“should be interpreted with great caution because of the small sample used”.

He concluded that the study

“cannot suggest a link and equally, it does not rule out a link... In order to establish a link there is a need for a much larger study taking a randomly selected...sample”.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Transport)

I have huge respect for King’s despite my son being a medical student there. COT recommended that a study be done, but that study has been described as being not big enough to give a proper answer. We need a large study so that we can find out whether that link exists.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

There is a need in terms of the scale of requirement. We are working through some of the requested work and have accepted some of the recommendations to which I referred earlier.

I shall address the point about the Boeing 787. Indeed, Boeing has designed a new aircraft with no-bleed air, but it has not withdrawn the older models, such as the 757, or required extra filters to be fitted.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

People working in the industry need regulation, to a certain extent, but I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that Boeing is so irresponsible that it would allow planes to fly that could contaminate passengers, according to his earlier arguments. It would be uncharitable to follow that line in suggesting that regulation is needed to tell it to remove planes that he thinks are “lethal”—his word.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about a public inquiry. COT, an independent panel, looked into the matter. In 2007-08, the issue was revisited by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, which urged the Government to complete the air sampling research, which we are doing. I am not convinced that a third public inquiry would take us much further forward.

On non-co-operation with the USA, we have had a number of contacts with the Federal Aviation Administration about a collaborative effort, but the principal effort is UK-led, because, as I have already alluded to, no American airlines are participating in the research funded by the FAA. A further point was made about insect spraying, which is done on planes, especially in hot climates. Complaints are occasionally received from passengers claiming respiratory illness after spraying. Under 2005 international health regulations, the World Health Organisation aims to prevent and control international spread of disease. Insecticides approved by the WHO can be used.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Does the Minister accept that it is not satisfactory for people not to know what is being sprayed when they get on a plane? Will he undertake to ensure that planes identify what chemicals are used and notify individuals in advance? Will he let me know what they are? When I have asked stewards and stewardesses on planes, they do not know the active ingredients. If he cannot answer now, he can write to me.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

That is covered by WHO provisions, guidance and rules.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Canterbury missed a very good debate in this Chamber yesterday on medical oxygen supplies on airlines. I am pleased to say that a number of UK airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are leading in that field by not charging for oxygen supplies. The matter has been raised by, among others, the British Lung Foundation. As I said here yesterday, that will help to raise awareness of the problem. Individuals will take note of provisions made, but further work needs to be done.

The UK is taking steps to help the world aviation industry to deal with this important issue. However, we need to ensure that we have clear evidence before us when doing so.