Ultrafine particle levels measured on board short-haul commercial passenger jet aircraft


Michaelis S, Loraine T & Howard CV (2021) Ultrafine particle levels measured on board short-haul commercial passenger jet aircraft. Environmental Health, 20 (1), Art. No.: 89.

Background Airline crew members report adverse health effects during and after inhalation exposure to engine oil fumes sourced to the air supply system onboard commercial and military aircraft. Most investigations into the causal factors of their reported symptoms focus on specific chemical contaminants in the fumes. The adverse health effects reported in aircrew exposed to the aircraft air supply, bled unfiltered off the engine or Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) may be related to particulate exposures, which are widely known to effect health. While oil contaminates the aircraft air supply, some suggest that this will only occur when there is a bearing seal failure, others document that there is low level oil contamination of the air supply during normal engine operation. This brief pilot study explores whether particulate exposure may be associated with the normal engine/APU and air supply operation and to therefore increase the understanding that UFP exposures may have on crew and passengers. Methods An ultrafine particle counter was utilised by an experienced airline captain in the passenger cabin of four short-haul commercial passenger aircraft. All flights were under 90 min on aircraft from two different carriers ranging from 7 months to 14 years old. Results UFP concentrations showed maximum concentrations ranging from 31,300 to 97,800 particles/cm3 when APU was selected on as a source of air on the ground and with engine bleed air and the air conditioning packs selected on during the climb. In 2 of the 4 flights the peaks were associated with an engine oil smell. Increases in UFP particle concentrations occurred with changes in engine/APU power and air supply configuration changes. Conclusions This study identified increases in UFP concentrations associated with engine and APU power changes and changes in air supply configuration. These results correlated with times when engine and APU oil seals are known to be less effective, enabling oil leakage to occur. The concentrations reached in the passenger cabins exceeded those taken in other ground-based environments. UFP exposures in aircraft cabins during normal flight indicates there will be health consequences for long serving aircrew and some passengers.

Ultrafine particles; Bleed air; Oil contamination; Oil fumes; Aircraft air supply

Environmental Health: Volume 20, Issue 1

Publication date31/12/2021
Publication date online31/08/2021
Date accepted by journal09/07/2021