Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire (ANSES) – Hearing on the Operation of Air Conditioning in Aircraft Cabins and the Associated Air Quality

Author: Dieter Scholz

Presentation in the frame of the ANSES investigation on "Air Quality in Aircraft and Health Effects on Aircrew" (Online, 08 July 2021)

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This is a document from the project Aircraft Cabin Air.

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Passenger aircraft occasionally encounter a Cabin Air Contamination Event (CACE). When these events make themselves know with a distinct smell they are called Smell Events. When they are evident even by smoke (and smell), they are called Fume Events.

The objectionable classical cabin air contamination from "bleed", "engine oil", "hydraulic fluid", and "deicing" accounts together for roughly 1/3 of the events. Oil has left traces on its way from the engine to the cabin interior: In bleed air ducts, air conditioning ducts, in recirculation filters, on cabin surfaces (wall panels, seats ...). Hydro carbon concentrations in the cabin can be calculated and agree with measurements. SAE has highlighted the risk of obtaining contaminated air from the engine compressor. It may preclude its use for transport aircraft, regardless of other good reasons. Nevertheless, aviation organizations like IATA claim that "Cabin air is as clean as a hospital operating theatre".

Cabin air ventilation in passenger aircraft is done with outside air. At cruise altitude, ambient pressure is below cabin pressure. Hence, the outside air needs to be compressed before it is delivered into the cabin.

The most economic system principle simply uses the air that is compressed in the engine compressor anyway and taps some of it off as "bleed air". The engine shaft is supported by lubricated bearings. They are sealed against the air in the compressor usually with labyrinth seals. Unfortunately, the jet engine seals leak oil by design in small quantities. The oil leaking into the compressor contains toxic additives. Furthermore, the oil includes toxic metal nanoparticles – normal debris from the engine.

An alternative source for the compressed air is the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU). Like the aircraft's jet engine, it is a gas turbine, built much in the same way when it comes to bearings and seals. For this reason, also compressed air from the APU is potentially contaminated in much the same way.

Compressed air from the engine is also used to pressurize the potable water. It has been observed that the potable water on board can also be contaminated.

Fan air and bleed air ducts at the interface between engine and wing carry outside compressed air. The inside of the ducts shows differences. The brown stain in the bleed air duct appears to be engine oil residue. In comparison, the fan air duct is clean. This shows that oil leaves the compressor bearings.

Ducting further downstream shows a black dry cover. The reason for the change in color seems to result from the different air temperatures: 400 °C at engine outlet and 200 °C further downstream behind the precooler.

The water extractor is a part of the air conditioning pack. The inlet of the water extractor is covered with black oily residue, because the temperature is even lower at this point.

The air conditioning air distribution ducts in the cabin are black inside from contaminated bleed air. New ducts are clean. Air duct are even clean inside at the end of the aircraft's life, in areas where they are used such that no bleed air flows through them.

Flow limiters have been found in ducts of the air conditioning system that are clogged from engine oil.

Also riser ducts feeding the cabin air outlets are black inside from engine oil residue.

Cleaning on top of the overhead bins brings to light dirt that is clearly more than dust. The black residue known from the ducts settles also on the bin surface.

Deicing fluid and hydraulic fluid can find their way into the air conditioning system via the APU air intake. A fence and a deflector around the air intake cannot fully prevent contaminants from entering the APU. Traces of contamination tend to be visible on the lower part of the fuselage. Contaminants are carried by the air flow in flight, from the landing gear bay to the APU inlet.

Hydraulic systems are never leak free. A hydraulic seal drain system tries to collect hydraulic fluid leaving the system with partial success. It is impossible to catch all leaking hydraulic fluid. If the containers of the seal drain system are not emptied they spill over. In old aircraft, surfaces in the landing gear bay are covered with a layer of hydraulic fluid. Dirt accumulates on the sticky surface. The hydraulic fluid is not confined to the inside of hydraulic bays, but continues its journey on the lower side of the fuselage towards the APU.

Deicing fluid if applied in the winter to the aircraft and can leak from the tail into the APU inlet.

Fuel and oil also leak down onto the airport surfaces. These fluids can be ingested by the engine from the ground and can enter the air conditioning system from there.

Entropy is the law of nature that states that disorder always increases. This is the reason, why it is impossible to confine engine oil and hydraulic fluids to their (predominantly) closed aircraft systems. This is why engine oil with metal nanoparticles hydraulic fluids, and deicing fluids eventually go everywhere and finally into the human body.

Filtration can help to avoid cabin air contamination. HEPA filters are in use with most passenger aircraft that work with recirculated air. Only HEPA carbon filters can also filter some of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). They are available for only some aircraft types and only lead to about 40% reduction of the concentration of VOCs in the cabin. Necessary would be to filter the incoming air from the engine compressor. Filter manufacturer Pall has worked on such a total air filtration option for the Airbus A320 for several years, but is so far not able to offer the new system.

For this reason, we are left with a situation, where engines are longer and longer on the wing without the chance to replace engines seals that get worn out more the longer the engine is operated. This leads to an increasing number of CACEs.

Airbus duct cleaning maintenance procedures after a CACE are ineffective. Aircraft released back into service over night after an (oil based) CACE are not cleaned as instructed by Airbus, because ducts cannot be removed from behind the panels in this short time, the inside of ducts is not accessible, and most of the deposit are firmly attached to the surface and cannot be removed.

This leaves the passengers in a situation for which the degree of contamination is unknown but real. Strictly, the amount of oil in the cabin cannot be determined from the oil consumption of the engine. For legal benefit of the aviation industry, sensors are missing on board and deprive passengers and crew from data that could be used in court.