Did British Airways Pilots Richard Westgate And Karen Lysakowska Die From Cabin Fumes?

British Airways pilot Richard Westgate

Eight years ago, British Airways pilot Karen Lysakowska hung up her wings due to ill health. She begged management to look into the issue of fumes in the cockpit, which she felt may have made her sick. Lysakowska even considered legal action, but she developed cancer, reports the British paper, The Mirror, and gave up the crusade. Last week, she died.

That might have been the end of that saga. But another British Airways pilot, Richard Westgate, above, died last month, a year after grounding himself. And he advised his lawyers to sue the airline for violating health and safety guidelines. They say "aerotoxic syndrome" could be the "new asbestos."

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The Aerotoxic Association, founded in 2007 by a group of airline workers who say that their careers ended prematurely because of the syndrome, claims that 30 airline pilots are currently grounded because of the condition (the original figure published in this article was significantly higher, but we could not verify it).

There have been several reports of passengers being affected too. On a Swedish flight a few years back, the pilot allegedly found the travelers in a "zombie-like condition," reported The Independent, and a businesswoman who claimed that she breathed in noxious fumes during a flight between Washington D.C. and San Diego, said that once home she experienced respiratory irritation, shaking, insomnia and memory loss. The doctors called it a "mysterious illness."

On most airplanes, the warm compressed air that both crew and passengers breathe comes straight from the jet engines, where it's possible for oil to contaminate the supply. The leakage can create "a wet dog" or "sweet oily" smell, and even visible haze or smoke.

In a 2007 report, the U.K. Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food acknowledged that these "fume events" occur on one in every 100 flights, but The Aerotoxic Association says many aircraft experience this contamination every time they're airborne. Exposure can lead to fatigue, blurred vision, shaking, vertigo, seizures, memory loss, headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulties, cognitive problems and respiratory failure.

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"I see this as an impending tsunami for the airline industry -- it has been hushed and ignored for so long," Westgate's lawyer, Frank Cannon, told The Mirror. He believes the airline is liable because it doesn't monitor the air quality on its planes. But no airline does, The Mirror reports, since a government-backed 2011 study found that cabin air was safe.

A British Airways spokesman said that it would "be inappropriate for us to speculate on the causes of their deaths," and that the airline was not aware of any legal claims.

Westgate's family is currently awaiting the result of two autopsies.

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