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Skin oil -- ozone interactions worsen air quality in airplanes

Airline passengers and crews who gripe about poor cabin air quality could have a new culprit to blame: the oils on their skin, hair and clothing. A study in the current issue of ACS Environmental Science & Technology suggests interactions between body oils and ozone found in airplane cabins could lead to the formation of chemical byproducts that might worsen nasal irritation, headaches, dry eyes and lips, and other common air traveler complaints.

In simulated flights lasting four hours, American and Danish researchers placed two groups of 16 volunteers in a mockup of an airline cabin and then exposed them to varying levels of ozone and air flow, including levels typically experienced in real flights. Consistently, ozone in the cabin increased production of identifiable chemical byproducts including nonanal and decanal, a pair of aldehyde compounds associated with headaches, nasal irritation and with other symptoms of sick building syndrome.

More than half of the byproducts were the result of reactions with skin, hair and clothing, according to Charles Weschler, Ph.D., the studys lead author, who is with University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. These oxidative byproducts are produced when ozone reacts with squalene, oleic acid and other compounds in natural skin oils, he said.

The role of these (by)products in the adverse health effects that have been associated with ozone is, at present, unknown, Weschler said. If these oxidation products are demonstrated to be harmful, simple steps can be taken to reduce their production in aircraft and buildings. For instance, installing ozone-destroying catalysts in airplane ventilation systems can help remove most of the ozone from incoming air, he noted.

In 2006, about 750 million people boarded commercial aircraft in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. At cruising altitude, the atmosphere outside of these aircraft contains very high ozone lev

Contact: Michael Bernstein
American Chemical Society

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