Overview of 2005-2008 Research Project

Following the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act (“Vision 100”) on Dec. 12, 2003, the FAA established a Center of Excellence (CoE) for cabin air quality research to address the research questions named in Section 815 of the legislation . The Airliner Cabin Environment Research (ACER) group led by Auburn University was selected as the CoE in 2005. However, the Occupational Health Research Consortium in Aviation (OHRCA), led by the University of Oregon, received a portion of the funds to research air quality incidents (exposure to oil/hydraulic fluid smoke/fumes inflight) and health effects on airline crewmembers.

In April 2005, OHRCA and two members of ACER (Harvard and UC-Berkeley), submitted a joint proposal to FAA to address two major parts of Section 815.The initial research plan intended to collect crew health survey and air monitoring data on individual flights to provide insight into any relationship between exposure to oil fumes and adverse health effects. It is important to understand and emphasize that the resources available and logistical challenges posed by monitoring airborne worksites and a highly mobile working population dictated that the OHRCA research would largely be a test of the feasibility of collecting the necessary exposure and health data. While the scope of data collection was unlikely to definitively answer questions of exposure/health associations, the results reported clearly indicate the need for attention to a number of health concerns and better characterization of cabin crew exposures

The specific aims and deliverables designated in the original proposal were:

  1. To collect, review, and summarize the available medical evidence provided by crewmembers that have reported exposure incident(s) to develop standardized medical evaluation protocols (Deliverables: medical review paper and medical evaluation protocols);
  1. To develop systems to capture possible health effects related to air quality incidents for crewmembers to report health and exposure conditions (Deliverable: air quality health surveillance instrument);
  1. To complete development and testing of the VN sampler (Deliverable: aircraft-ready portable filter sampler with carbon monoxide monitoring capabilities);
  1. To conduct a feasibility study to field test the VN+CO sampler and the air quality health surveillance instrument in both the cabin and cockpit environments. (Deliverable: testing results of instruments and logistics for the implementation of future surveillance study); and
  1. To design a full surveillance study of cabin crew that will establish the relationship between air quality and health effects, for which funding will be sought through a separate proposal after the completion of the activities described in this proposal.

Two key factors forced redesign of key elements of the research protocol, as described in the bullet points below: (1) First, the airlines failed to actively collaborate in the study; specifically, they would not permit their flight attendant employees to conduct any air sampling without fear of discipline; and (2) Second, our limited funding meant that air sampling data could only be collected on a relatively small number of flights, such that it would not be possible to reliably characterize the range of conditions on smoke/fume incident flights. To this end:

  • Flight attendants did not collect in-flight air samples; instead researchers collected convenience air samples with VN samplers on flights in the course of their regular travel. Thus the feasibility of flight attendants carrying and deploying air samplers either under routine or upset conditions was not tested. Also, instead of administering health symptoms questionnaires following sampled flights, we collected baseline health questionnaires from a sample of flight attendants from two airlines by mail or in person at airports, and separately. Thus, both the limited number of monitored flights in the convenience sample and the separation of air sampling from health surveillance meant that an association between exposure and health symptom/diagnosis data could not be studied.
  • We were not able to develop and test an incident reporting mechanism beyond what already existed through the participating flight attendant union.

While these limitations were significant, the data generated still enabled full or partial completion of deliverables 1, 3, and 4 above.

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