9 Investigates: Toxic fumes on planes and a new push for safety changes

9 Investigates: Toxic fumes on planes and a new push for safety changes

Tammi Fitzgerald takes a breathing treatment with a nebulizer every day.

She claims severe asthma is one of many medical conditions she lives with, and she blames the two decades she spent as a flight attendant.

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"I'd be sick for days when I came off the plane," Fitzgerald said. "It really affected my career."

Fitzgerald claims on several flights, she was exposed to what's known as "bleed air."

On some aircraft, air used to pressurize the cabin is bled off from the engine compressor.

In some situations, like a broken seal, oil can leak into the engine, meaning that air going into the cabin could be toxic.

"You're taking a risk, and it is not acceptable," Fitzgerald said.  "This doesn't just happen at American, it happens all over the world."

She always took a mask on board.

The Association of Flight Attendants is pushing for safety changes, and so are pilots.

The Pilots Union at American Airlines started documenting "smoke, odor, fumes" incidents.

The Union officials call it their "skunks of the month" report.

Their July report shows 58 incidents on American Airlines planes; however, it's not clear how many are blamed on bleed air.

"We're dealing usually with contaminants that are invisible in the air," Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said.

He introduced the Cabin Air Safety Act in Washington, D.C., in April because he said incidents are undetected, untracked and unreported.

"This legislation would require reporting and investigation of any incidents of contaminants," Blumenthal said.

American Airlines would not comment on Fitzgerald's claims or the federal legislation.

Airlines for America, an organization of carriers, sent Channel 9 a statement.

Spokesperson Carter Yang said safety is at the forefront of every aspect of airline operations, including making sure crew members and passengers are in a safe and healthy environment while they travel.


“Safety is ingrained in the culture of the U.S. aviation industry, and at the forefront of every aspect of airline operations. This includes a commitment to safeguarding the well-being of our crew members and passengers by providing a safe and healthy environment to work and travel on each and every flight.

Modern aircraft have highly effective environmental control systems that filter air as it is circulated throughout the aircraft cabin, and multiple studies over the years have consistently concluded that cabin air meets or exceeds health and safety standards." 

"I stay sick a lot of the time," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald is convinced her time on airplanes is to blame for her health problems. In fact, it's the reason she retired and no longer flies.

"To me, it is a risk to flight safety," Fitzgerald said.  "I would like to see filters put on the aircraft."

There is now a companion bill to the Cabin Air Safety Act in the U.S. House.

Blumenthal told Channel 9 this issue is gaining momentum and he hopes the House and Senate will hold hearings.

Researchers at the University of Washington are also working to develop a blood test that could detect bleed air exposure.