The scariest part of air travel (Hint: It’s not a plane crash)

I don’t fly on commercial airplanes anymore, if I have a choice. It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. I used to actually enjoy it. I was even a cadet officer at the U.S. Air Force Academy during the Vietnam War. We trained to fly in gliders (without engines), propeller aircrafts and Phantom F-4 operational fighter jets.

My father helped design and install the first radar navigation devices on the F-4 assembly line at McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft in St. Louis. We also practiced parachuting at the Academy. Jumping out of a perfectly fine, functioning aircraft and falling a long way.

But oh, how far we’ve fallen, when you consider the serious health risks (on which I’ll elaborate in a moment) associated with flying in contemporary airplanes.

Given these risks, I’m much more likely to take the scenic route in my car or take a train. Not only is it safer (health-wise), it’s much more enjoyable.

Trains, for instance, just have a certain allure…

I recently rewatched the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love. (Somebody please inform the Special Prosecutor whether the President has ever watched this movie.) It takes place on the Orient Express train. The dining cars, sleeping cars and other accommodations looked highly civilized and comfortable.

If you prefer Hitchcock, you can get the same feel from his 1959 classic, North by Northwest, in the train scenes between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. (Cinema critics surmise many of the early devices of the Bond films were first developed by Hitchcock.)

By comparison, flying on a commercial airplane today feels more like riding in a cattle car. Plus, as I mentioned, it exposes you to many surprising health risks.

Germs are the least of your problems

The first, obvious health risks you encounter on a commercial airliner are common viruses.

As you know, I try to keep my immune system healthy using natural approaches. But after I fly on an airplane, I always seem to come down with a nasty cold or flu. Flight passengers are sitting targets for the microbes in the recirculated cabin air.

When you really think about it, you come into contact with germs the entire way to your destination. It’s an assault on the body (and mind) — starting in the parking garages, heading to terminals, trudging to the waiting areas, lingering at the baggage carousel, and hauling your luggage to the ground transportation depot for pick-up.

In addition, there are many more serious health risks associated with commercial air travel.

Toxins abound in the friendly skies

At the high elevations of air travel, the air temperature is very cold. So, the aircraft pumps air into the cockpit and cabin through the engine compartment to warm it up. Aircraft manufacturers came up with this clever design to save energy (as if burning fossil fuel at that rate could ever really be energy efficient).

But jet engine oil and other fluids produce a wide range of toxic compounds when exposed to heat. And this nifty design to push the hot engine air into the cockpit and cabin also introduces small particles of engine oil, lubricants and hydrocarbons into the plane’s air supply. It also brings with it the toxic byproducts, including acetaldehyde, benzene, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, ozone, and toluene.

These chemicals have neurotoxic effects that belong in the same category as pesticides and sarin gas. But they’re often odorless, so you don’t even know you’re inhaling them and slowly being poisoned.

In a recent study, World Health Organization (WHO) researchers found that breathing airplane air makes people sick. And repeated exposure causes a new occupational disease called “Aerotoxic Syndrome.”

This syndrome can mimic other conditions, such as chronic fatigue, chronic infections, multiple chemical sensitivity, “sick building” syndrome (various nonspecific symptoms that occur within many occupants of a shared space), and neurodegenerative diseases.

Several studies have found one pesticide chemical in particular, 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP), present in 25 to 100 percent of in-flight air samples. They found another toxic chemical, tributyl phosphate (TBP), in about 75 percent of in-flight air samples. Plus, 100 percent of samples taken from people exposed to cabin air had residue of TBP in their urine.

TCP exposure causes neuropathy (damage to nerve sheaths), similar to what happens in multiple sclerosis. Symptoms may appear immediately, or a few weeks after exposure.

Unfortunately, you can’t get away from these toxic chemicals when flying at 50,000 feet. No wonder some experts now call modern aircraft “flying gas chambers.”

Toxins, biohazards, pesticides — oh my!

Your exposure to toxins on commercial airlines doesn’t stop there. You also come into contact with biohazards, including fecal matter. Airlines also use pesticides, such as organophosphate chemicals, to treat their airplanes. These chemicals are the real causes of food sensitivities to wheat, as I explained briefly last month. (You can learn more about the great gluten scandal in the upcoming October issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.)

Thankfully, there is some good news on the flight horizon…

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner incorporates air-handling technology that prevents bleeding of toxic chemicals into cabin air with its “clean air design.”

“Clean air design” must have sounded like great marketing copy to the ad agency for the new Boeing Dreamliner — but it never got off the ground, literally.

Ironically, Boeing doesn’t promote this new clean air design. Probably because they don’t want to draw attention to the health hazards of their other, older aircraft.

On this 9-11 we pause to remember the victims of the horrific events of 2001, which changed air travel and virtually all aspects of our lives in the 21st century. Two weeks before that date, we had sent our daughter on the same United flight from Boston to Los Angeles (LAX) to see her grandparents (since deceased). It was one of the same flights fated to be flown into the World Trade Center towers.

When we dropped her off at the airport in Boston, we remarked on the lax security (due to ongoing construction connected with the grossly over budget, endlessly delayed $14 billion “Big Dig” government boondoggle transportation infrastructure project). Tragically, on that 9-11, our most advanced technologies were defeated using medieval weapons and the medieval mentality behind them.



“Aerotoxic syndrome a new occupational disease,” Public Health Panorama, June 2017; 3(2): 141-356

“Aerotoxic syndrome: Adverse health effects following exposure to jet oil mist during commercial flights,” Proceedings of the International Congress on Occupational Health Conference, Brisbane, Australia, 9/4/2000