Sunday, February 14, 2010

farmdoc's blog post number 665

I’ve just finished a non-fiction book whose content’s as fascinating as its title: The Men Who Killed Qantas [1, 2]. In 263 readable pages Matthew Benns catalogues Qantas’s biggest downsides – starting at its birth soon after WWI, and ending in September 2009 with the Airbus A380’s woes. As his book’s title and subtitle suggest, Benns’s theme is that in recent years and decades, Qantas’s quest to maximise profits has compromised safety. The 16 chapters are cutely numbered QF1 to QF16. The standout chapter is QF9: ‘Toxic air’. It’s an expose of ‘aerotoxic syndrome’ [3, 4, 5] – which I’d never heard of before. Aerotoxic syndrome causes debility, and even death, of aircrew and passengers after exposure to toxic fumes during flight. The fumes’ pungent odour’s reminiscent of vomit or blue cheese. Apparently, to cut costs, air is taken superheated from inside the jet engines, cooled by aircon, and pumped unfiltered into the cockpit and cabin. This system works almost all the time. Indeed unless there’s an engine oil leak, in which case the oil when superheated breaks down into various chemicals including carcinogens and organo-phosphates. Oil leaks are much more likely in older planes. Pretty scary, eh. Conspiratorially, Benns suggests airlines worldwide are covering up aerotoxic syndrome. I’ve written before of ‘disease mongering’ [6, 7]. I’ve no idea if aerotoxic syndrome’s a covered-up real disease, or a mongered disease. Time will tell.

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