The inquest into the death of British Airways co-pilot Richard Westgate commenced on 6 April 2017 at the Salisbury Coroner’s Court.
What is Aerotoxic Syndrome
“Aereotoxic syndrome” is the term given to the illness caused by exposure to contaminated air in jet aircraft. The condition has not been recognised by medicine and claims of health effects were found to be unsubstantiated by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (The report can be found here.). Cabin air contamination is said to occur in the following way. For a comfortable environment and the appropriate cabin pressure to breathe at high altitude, warm compressed air is required. This is supplied direct from the jet engines, known as ‘bleed air’. This air is mixed with the air in the cabin. Jet engines have wet seals which keep oil and air apart. This is important as jet engines require synthetic oils for lubrication, which contain ingredients such as tricresyl phosphate, an organo-phosphate. The wet seals are not 100% effective and through wear their effectiveness can decline. In such an event the oil and air would mix with the air in the engine and as a result contaminated air would get into the cabin.
Mr Westgate died in 2012 in unexplained circumstances after seeking treatment for what he thought was “aerotoxic syndrome”. The post mortem examinations gave the causes of death as either pentobarbital toxicity or lymphocytic myocarditis. Prior to his death, Mr Westgate was said to have suffered from excruciating pain for which he sought specialist care in the Netherlands.
At the start of the inquest, coroner Dr Simon Fox QC stated that : “Exposure to organophosphate in the course of his employment as a commercial pilot is not a proper issue to be examined by this inquest”. He went on and explained that the inquest would consider whether Mr Westgate had died from an overdose, intended or not, of pentobarbital, an insomnia drug. It will further explore whether Mr Westgate had been suffering from an inflammation of the heart muscle, myocarditis.
This early decision seems to be at odds with previous coroner, Sheriff Stanhope Payne’s report, dated 16 February 2015, issued under Regulation 28 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013. (The report can be found here.). The report set out that testing of samples taken both prior and after the death,
disclosed symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphate compounds in aircraft cabin air, which can cause lymphocytic myocarditis. The report also highlighted the coroner’s concerns about potential exposure to organophosphate by occupants of aircraft cabins, that the resulting impairment to the health of pilots may lead to death and that there was no real-time monitoring to detect such compounds in cabin air.
The inquest attracted the attention of the airline industry with the Civil Aviation Authority being involved, and representatives of a number of other airlines watching from the public gallery.
The inquest continues.
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