Poisoning Workers and Consumers for Profit

The Toxins Return

Directed by Inge Altmeier and Reinhard Hornung (2009)

Film Review

The Toxins Return is a German documentary about the failure of western governments to regulate the toxic chemicals present in their imports from third world countries.

Most of the film focuses on textiles. Textile manufacturing has virtually collapsed in the developed world, with most multinational corporations moving  their factories to Asian countries that pay sweat shop wages. Unsurprisingly these third world countries also make no effort to regulate the toxic chemicals used to bleach, “soften” and dye these textiles – nor the toxic pesticides used to protect them from insect pests during their long journey to the industrialized world.

Organophosphates, organochlorine compounds and methyl bromide*, toxic chemicals long banned in the EU (but not in the US), are used routinely in China and India, where 90% of European textiles are produced. Most third world textile workers survive at most two years in the industry before they become too ill with work.

Meanwhile German workers who come in direct contact with the shipping containers and/or textiles are also at high risk of developing chronic occupational illnesses.

One-fifth of shipping containers that enter through the Hamburg port are found to contain toxic gasses. In Hamburg, customs workers have special instruments to detect toxic gasses before the containers are opened. Yet only a minority of textile containers are opened in Hamburg. Most on on-shipped by train to the Czech Republic for opening and redistribution of the goods they contain.

The Czech Republic has no protocol in place to protect their workers from toxic shipping containers. Although the EU has laws regulating toxic imports, there is virtually no mechanism in place for enforcing them.

The last third of the documentary examines the toxic chemicals Chinese companies use in children’s toys. Although phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastic toys) have been banned in the EU for more than a decade, all German children tested in a three year study continued to excrete phthalates in their urine (from  exposure to imported toys). Phthalates are known to cause reproductive cancers and low sperm counts.

Update: Although the film is eight years, there seems to be little progress in regulating the toxins we are exposed to in imported textiles. See Health Risks in International Container and Bulk Cargo Transport Due to Volatile Toxic Compounds

Progress seems to be somewhat better in terms of phthalates. Last year the US banned six phthalates in toys (including imports) children are likely to put in their month (though the enforcement mechanism is unclear) – see Phalates Information

The EU, meanwhile is proposing a total ban on all phthalates.

*The US ban on methyl bromide only extends to indoor use.


The Airlines’ Toxic Little Secret

How Safe is Air Travel?

If you’re planning a plane trip soon you need to know about a condition that can cause airline pilots to develop brain fog and become confused and disoriented during flights. It’s known as aerotoxic syndrome. Tristan Loraine, former pilot and founder of the Aerotoxic Association, has documented dozens of cases (and two deaths) among pilots and cabin crews. It can also affect passengers and is suspected as the cause of unexplained midair collisions.

A Dorset (UK) coroner investigating the 2012 death of a British Airways pilot Richard Westgate has brought the issue to mainstream media attention by calling on British Airways and Britain’s Civil Aviation authority to take “urgent action to prevent future deaths.”  Frank Cannon, the lawyer for the Westgate case, also represents fifty other air crew, employed by several different airlines, affected by the condition.

The Cause of Aerotoxic Syndrome

Although aircraft manufacturers have known about the problem for decades, the term “aerotoxic syndrome” was first coined in 1999 by doctors treating air crews for the condition. The cause of the condition is repeated exposure to organophosphates* (as well as hundreds of carcinogens) that leak into the air used for pressurization. Sufferers typically show elevated levels of the organophosphate tricresyl phosphate (TCP) in their blood.

Commercial passenger planes compress air from the engines to pressurize the cockpit and cabin. There are seals meant to separate engine oil and so-called “bleed air,” but these commonly leak with age (most airlines rely mainly on aircraft that are fifteen to twenty years old) and inadequate maintenance. A recent 60 Minutes-Australia investigation found contaminated air in 50% of the aircraft they tested. The clip below also cites a 2007 memo by a senior Boeing inspector warning that “lives need to be lost” before Boeing takes action on preventing aerotoxic syndrome.

Loraine Calls for Organophosphate Detectors and Filtration Systems

Lorrine sees the introduction of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner — the first and only new commercial jet in which air isn’t drawn from the engines — as an admission of the risk by the airlines. The former pilot, who has made a documentary about aerotoxic syndrome, insists at minimum airlines should install organophosphate detectors in their cabins and cockpits. He claims the reason they refuse to do so is because they would go off all the time and alarm passengers.

He also points out that current aircraft could be fitted with filtration systems at a cost of no more than £20,000 each.

The FAA Position on Aerotoxic Syndrome

Shortly after a 2010 CNN expose on aerotoxic syndrome, Senator Diane Feinstein championed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required the agency to establish a research program focused on aircraft engine/APU bleed air cleaning and monitoring technology.

The following paragraph summarizes their findings:

The FAA conducted a safety database assessment (i.e. a computer search of the airlines own data) of airliner cabin air quality events involving 121 commercial air line operators. The results of the analysis indicate an extremely low occurrence involving bleed air contamination from engine oil or hydraulic fluid. While there are reports of purported personal injury in news media, medical privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 prohibit the FAA from obtaining corroborating data which could be used to determine a causative relationship between air contaminant events and associated risk to passenger and flightdeck crew health

In other words, instead of testing the air quality of passenger airlines like 60 Minutes Australia, they merely rely on the airlines’ data to conclude the problem was non-existent.

The Significance of Genetic Variability

Like British and Australian regulators, the FAA is using broad statistical sampling to argue the so-called aerotoxic syndrome is no more prevalent in air crew than the general population – therefore it doesn’t exist. The fallacy here is that people have enormous genetic variability in their capacity to metabolize organophosphates. Paraoxonase (PON1) is one enzyme that inactivates some organophosphates through hydrolysis.  A 2006 report found a 13-fold variation in adults in PON1 levels and efficacy.

It logically follows that individuals with low PON1 levels are at higher risk of developing aerotoxic syndrome with repeated exposure to TCP.

Safer than Childbirth in Africa

The good news here is that air travel is probably safer than drinking arsenic or childbirth in Africa. However it’s clearly not as safe as airlines and regulators would lead us to believe. Those with urgent and compelling reasons to get on a commercial jet should either make sure it’s a Dreamliner or bring their own oxygen tank.

*Organophosphates are chemical compounds commonly used as insecticides. Because they are potent nerve poisons, they are commonly used as chemical warfare agents. Phosgene, the nerve gas used in Nazi gas chambers, was an organophosphate.


Link to Loraine’s 2007 documentary Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlineshttp://www.factnotfictionfilms.com/welcomeaboardtoxicairlines.html

Good websites for additional information on aerotoxic syndrome



Also posted on Veterans Today