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Southwest Airlines Faces Suit Over Toxic Airplane Air

Oct 30, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Southwest Airlines has been hit with a personal injury lawsuit over toxic airplane air.  According to Courthouse News Service, the federal complaint was filed by two twin sisters who claim they and other passengers choked on toxic "super-heated" fumes that formed a "mist" in a Southwest airplane during flight.

The issue of toxic airplane air is a controversy that has dogged the airline industry for years. Earlier this year, a joint investigation by German and Swiss TV networks claimed to have found high levels of a dangerous toxin on board several planes. The chemicals found in the samples included high levels of tricresyl phosphate (TCP), an organophosphate contained in modern jet oil as an antiwear additive, which can lead to drowsiness, headaches, respiratory problems or neurological illnesses.

Critics of the airline industry claim that the system used to re-circulate air in airplanes does not remove fumes or vapors from the engine. The process involves combining re-circulated existing cabin air with air bled off the engines. The air pulled into the engines is cooled and compressed before it is pumped into the cabin. If this system malfunctions, chemical contaminants can end up circulating through the airplane, creating a so-called fume event.

The United Kingdom’s Committee on Toxicity said in 2007 that pilots reported such fume events in 1 percent of flights. The group also said that maintenance inspected and confirmed incidents in 0.05 percent of flights. According to the National Research Council, such fume events could occur on four out of every 1,000 flights.

Valerie and Victoria Vaughns' lawsuit claims that  that one hour into their flight from Los Angeles, passengers began having trouble breathing.  The pilot announced had been a malfunction, and as he engaged the engines for a steep ascent, "super-heated air" blew out of the ventilation system and a "mist" appeared to hang in the cabin. The plane made an emergency landing in Albuquerque, and a fire marshal escorted passengers off the plane, the complaint says.

According to Courthouse News Service, the Vaughns claim to have suffered pressure in their heads, nausea, rashes, fatigue, uncontrollable tremors, weight loss and central and peripheral nervous system damage as a result of the incident.  The complaint alleges that toxic fumes emitted during the flight were bleed air that was contaminated with hot engine oil when the pilot put the engines on full thrust.

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