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Air concentrations of PBDEs on in-flight airplanes and assessment of flight crew inhalation exposure


To address the knowledge gaps regarding inhalation exposure of flight crew to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) on airplanes, we measured PBDE concentrations in air samples collected in the cabin air at cruising altitudes and used Bayesian Decision Analysis (BDA) to evaluate the likelihood of inhalation exposure to result in the average daily dose (ADD) of a member of the flight crew to exceed EPA Reference Doses (RfDs), accounting for all other aircraft and non-aircraft exposures. A total of 59 air samples were collected from different aircraft and analyzed for four PBDE congeners—BDE 47, 99, 100 and 209 (a subset were also analyzed for BDE 183). For congeners with a published RfD, high estimates of ADD were calculated for all non-aircraft exposure pathways and non-inhalation exposure onboard aircraft; inhalation exposure limits were then derived based on the difference between the RfD and ADDs for all other exposure pathways. The 95th percentile measured concentrations of PBDEs in aircraft air were <1% of the derived inhalation exposure limits. Likelihood probabilities of 95th percentile exposure concentrations >1% of the defined exposure limit were zero for all congeners with published RfDs.


Forty percent of fatalities from impact-survivable aircraft accidents are due to fire and smoke.1 Attempts to address this critical passenger and flight crew safety issue include the Aviation Research Act of 1988, which had a stated goal of developing a “fireproof aircraft cabin”. Efforts to achieve this goal include the incorporation of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) into manufactured materials, including carpets, seats and cabin interiors on aircraft, to slow the propagation of fire.

PBDEs are a class of flame retardant chemicals that affect the heat release rate of products through flame inhibition. PBDEs are manufactured as three commercial products—PentaBDE, OctaBDE and DecaBDE—which are, in general, comprised of different PBDE congeners: tri- to hepta-BDEs, hepta- to nona-BDEs and deca-BDEs, respectively. There exists the potential of 209 congeners of PBDEs, named based on the number and position of bromines on the ether rings. BDEs 47, 99 and 100 are major congeners in the PentaBDE commercial product, BDE 183 is the major congener in the OctaBDE commercial product and BDE 209 comprises nearly all of the DecaBDE commercial product.2 The use of PBDEs in commercial products is in the process of being discontinued, with the EU banning the commercial products Penta-, Octa- and DecaBDE. In the United States, Penta- and OctaBDE were voluntarily phased out by the manufacturers in 2004, with a similar voluntary phaseout for DecaBDE planned for 2012. Despite these phaseouts and bans, vast reservoirs of PBDEs exist in products that are intended to be used for decades.3

PBDEs are added to a wide range of consumer products at up to 20% by weight, from plastics in television set housings to foam cushions in chairs and in carpet backing.4 Their widespread use as additives, combined with the lipophilic nature of most congeners and persistence in the environment, led to their ubiquitous presence in food, on surfaces, and in the air and dust in indoor environments (e.g., offices, homes, cars and aircraft).5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Although diet is an important route of exposure for PBDEs,11 the indoor environment has also been implicated as a critical route of exposure.12, 13, 14, 15 Results of animal and in vitro studies suggest developmental reproductive and neurotoxic effects as well as endocrine disruption associated with exposure to these compounds.16, 17, 18, 19 Recent epidemiological evidence suggests evidence of disruption of thyroid and sex hormone homeostasis.20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

Limited information is currently available regarding exposure to flame retardants on commercial aircraft. The first reported measurement of PBDEs on aircraft was from one lint sample collected from an airplane seat pocket, and the researcher reported the single highest concentration of total PBDEs in dust anywhere in the world at that time (160,000 ng/g; n=1).27 The only peer-reviewed paper specific to measurements onboard commercial aircraft also reported concentrations of PBDEs in dust from aircraft that can exceed the highest dust concentrations found in homes.6 A study of PBDEs in serum of flight attendant and pilots reported that body burdens in this group were similar to the US population, although the data indicate potentially elevated serum concentrations for several individuals.28 To address the knowledge gaps regarding exposures to PBDEs on aircraft, we collected in-flight air samples onboard aircraft and used these data to evaluate inhalation exposure for flight crew.


Air Sampling

A total of 59 air samples were collected from 2009 to 2010, each from a different aircraft. Integrated samples were collected for the period of 10,000 feet ascending to 10,000 feet descending on all flights. A sampling manifold split the flows from the pumps to obtain the target flow for each sample type (additional air samples were collected for other analytes; results for those analytes are not reported here). Flows rates ranged from 1.5 to 8.6 l/min depending on flow requirements of other sample types collected concurrently. Flows for each sample were measured using a TSI model 4146 volumetric flow meter (Shoreview, MN, USA) and recorded at sample set up and take down and periodically checked during the flight. Samples were collected on two types of sorbent samplers, both of which consisted of two sections of polyurethane foam and XAD-2 sorbent: commercially-available tubes for low-volume sampling (SKC 226-143) and samplers prepared in-house using 5 g of pre-cleaned XAD-2 (Supelco) sandwiched between two sections of pre-cleaned polyurethane foam (Supelco, one half polyurethane foam plug per sampler), packed in a freshly-muffled glass cartridge (URG). The sorbent tubes were shipped and maintained chilled after field spiking with deuterated surrogates until sample extraction.

Samplers were spiked with surrogate recovery standards (SRSs) before transferring to either a Soxhlet extractor or accelerated solvent extractor (ASE, Dionex) cell. Samplers were extracted in dichloromethane or 1:1 hexane:dichloromethane for Sohxlet and ASE extraction, respectively. Extracts were solvent-exchanged into methyl-t-butyl ether and concentrated to 100 μl. The QC samples included solvent method blanks, matrix blanks and matrix spikes (10 ng each analyte). BDE 126 and 13C12 BDE 209 were added to the matrix as SRSs (15 to 40 ng each, depending on analyte and sample set) just before extraction to assess method performance on a sample-by-sample basis, and to provide correction for analytical losses, with BDE 126 as SRS for the PentaBDE and OctaBDE congeners, and 13C12 BDE 209 for BDE 209. Dibromobiphenyl was added to the extract just before analysis as the internal standard. Samples were analyzed using GC/MS in the multiple ion detection mode using negative chemical ionization with methane reagent gas. The GC column (DB-5, 15 m, 0.25 mm id, 0.10-um film thickness) was programmed from 100–300 °C at 30 °C/min. Quantification was performed using the internal standard method, against a 5-point calibration curve, covering 2–150 ng/ml (plus a zero level standard; range for BDE 209 was 4–300 ng/ml), that was analyzed with each set. Calibration curves were generated using a linear least squares method. Analyte concentrations in samples (including blanks and spikes) were corrected by the corresponding SRS recovery value; then, analyte concentrations in field samples and spiked samples were corrected by average SRS-corrected blank values.

Quality Assurance/Quality Control

QA/QC samples included field blanks, matrix blanks and field duplicates. SRS recoveries for BDE 126 were higher for Soxhlet and longer-duration ASE extraction method (average of 89%) compared with a shorter-duration ASE method (average of 24%). For 13C12BDE 209, recoveries were higher with Soxhlet extraction (76% on average) compared with either ASE extraction duration (37% and 16% for long- and short-duration ASE, respectively). Blanks for commercially prepared samplers were consistently higher than for laboratory-prepared samples by approximately a factor of 10, with average values of 2 and 0.3 ng/sampler, respectively. It is likely that PDBEs were present in the polyurethane foam in the sampling media. Analyte recoveries in matrix spike samples were similar to matched SRS recoveries, confirming that SRS spike recoveries provide a reasonable estimate of extraction efficiency. Further research is needed to determine the joint effects of the amount of co-extracted material from the sampler matrix; extraction method, solvent and duration/time; and source/lot of sampler material on analyte recoveries. Variability in the matrix spike recoveries demonstrate that it is critical to include 13C12BDE 209 SRSs as it appears that BDE 209 recovery is impacted by the variables listed above and possibly others. Instrument limits of detection are low, approximately 0.2 ng/ml, so method detection limits (MDLs) are driven by background contamination of the samplers, which is best characterized from field blanks. MDLs were defined as three times the standard deviation of field blanks. On average, MDLs for PentaBDE, OctaBDE and DecaBDE congeners were 1.0 (n=5 sample batches), 3.6 (n=3) and 1.1 (n=5) ng/sampler, respectively. Note that MDLs were determined for each sampler batch/extraction method. Analysis of duplicate pairs indicated good detect vs non-detect agreement (90%) and precision (median coefficient of variation=13%).

Daily Dose Calculations

Average daily dose (ADD) was calculated using a similar methodology used by EPA to derive “Public Health Levels” for PCBs in schools.29, 30 ADDs for aircraft and non-aircraft exposures were calculated using the formulas and assumptions presented in Table 1, weighted by the time spent in each environment. Aircraft exposures totaled 1000 h per year to simulate a typical flight attendant duty schedule.28 PBDE exposure concentrations were obtained from data from this study and the peer-reviewed literature.5, 6, 13, 31, 32 ADDs were calculated using the 95th percentile estimates of inhalation rate, dust ingestion and median exposure concentrations for non-aircraft and aircraft exposures. A high estimate of ADDs was then calculated by substituting median aircraft exposure concentrations with the 95th percentile values.

Table 1 Formulas and inputs30 for calculating average daily dose (ADD) for multiple exposure pathways in aircraft and non-aircraft environments.

Derived Inhalation Exposure Limits

Inhalation exposure limits were derived for congeners measured in this study with published reference doses (RfDs; BDEs 47, 99 and 209).33, 34, 35 To derive the inhalation exposure limits, ADDs were calculated in the same manner described above for all exposure pathways excluding inhalation aboard aircraft using the high estimate of ADD. This ADD was then subtracted from the RfD for each congener (RfDs: BDE 47 (100 ng/kg-day), BDE 99 (100 ng/kg-day) and BDE 209 (7000 ng/kg-day). The difference represents the ADD that a worker could receive from inhalation of PBDEs aboard aircraft, accounting for all other exposure pathways, without the total dose exceeding the RfDs. To derive an inhalation exposure limit from this maximum inhalation ADD, we back-calculated the maximum exposure concentration using the same assumptions for inhalation exposure presented in Table 1.

Statistical Methods

Summary statistics and Spearman correlations were calculated using the SAS Statistical Software, version 9.0. (Cary, NC, USA), and graphs were produced using SigmaPlot graphing software (Systat Software, San Jose, CA, USA). Data less than the MDL were substituted with ½ MDL for calculating summary statistics. Bayesian Decision Analysis (BDA) was conducted using a method described by Hewett et al.36 and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA)37 and performed using IH Data Analyst Software (Exposure Assessment Solutions, Morgantown, WV, USA). We assumed a non-informative prior and data satisfied log-normal distribution assumptions for BDA. The 95th percentile exposure values were calculated using log-probit regression to account for left censored data. Exposure categories were classified based on guidance on control banding from the AIHA.36, 38


PBDEs in Aircraft Air

In-flight concentrations of PBDEs in air are presented in Table 2. BDE 47 was detected in 63% of samples with a median concentration of 1.3 ng/m3 (range: <0.04–20 ng/m3) and BDE 209 was detected in 42% of samples with a median concentration of <1.2 ng/m3 (range: ND–2100 ng/m3). BDE 99 and BDE 100 were detected in fewer than 30% of samples owing to higher limits of detection as a result of background levels in the sampling media, with maximum concentrations of 41 and 9.4 ng/m3, respectively. BDE 183 was detected in 11 of 34 samples (median concentration=<1.3 ng/m3; maximum concentration=98 ng/m3). In an analysis of detected values only, the concentrations of the congeners associated with the PentaBDE commercial product (BDEs 47, 99, 100) were moderately to strongly correlated (Spearman R: 0.72–0.93, P<0.01). There was suggestive evidence of a moderate correlation between BDE 47, BDE 99 and BDE 209 (Spearman R: 0.43, P=0.11; 0.65, P=0.06). BDE 183 and BDE 209 were also correlated (Spearman R: 0.76, P=0.01). A sufficient number of detected samples were not available for correlation analysis of the PentaBDE congeners and BDE 183.

Table 2 Summary statistics for PBDE concentrations (ng/m3) on in-flight aircraft.

Daily Dose Estimates for Flight Crew

Total ADD for non-aircraft exposures was calculated as 5.2 ng/kg-day for the five congeners. The non-aircraft exposure was dominated by dietary and dust ingestion, which accounted for over 95% of the non-aircraft dose. ADD in aircraft, using median values for dust concentrations in aircraft,6 median air concentrations from this study but high estimates of dust ingestion and inhalation rates,29 was calculated as 3.4 ng/kg-day. High estimate of ADD in aircraft, calculated using the 95th percentile concentrations in aircraft from the same studies, was 61 ng/kg-day.

Derived Inhalation Exposure Limits

The calculated ADDs for BDEs 47, 99 and 209 do not exceed each congener's individual Rfd (EPA does not have a published RfD for BDE 100 or BDE 183). On a congener by congener basis, the calculated total ADDs from all non-aircraft and aircraft exposures, excluding the fraction from inhalation exposures onboard aircraft, were subtracted from EPA's RfDs for each congener. For the most health-protective scenario (i.e., highest estimates of background exposure), the remaining dose was 84 ng/kg-day, 73 ng/kg-day and 6981 ng/kg-day for BDE 47, 99 and 209, respectively. This translates into a derived maximum inhalation exposure limit on aircraft of 2500 ng/m3, 2200 ng/m3 and 206,000 ng/m3, respectively, that a flight crew member could be exposed to without exceeding EPA's RfDs.

Likelihood Estimates for Exceeding Derived Inhalation Exposure Limits

The derived inhalation exposure limits are several orders of magnitude higher than the measured air concentrations in this study (Figure 1). The 95th percentile air concentrations in this study (Table 2) are <1% of the calculated maximum inhalation exposure limit. Based on guidance from the AIHA, 95th percentile exposure concentrations that represent <10% of an OEL may be characterized as “Highly Controlled”.36 Results from BDA indicate that the probability of 95th percentile air concentrations exceeding 1% of the exposure limit is zero for all congeners evaluated.

Figure 1

Distribution of measured brominated diphenyl ether (BDE) 47 and BDE 209 concentrations (ng/m3) in this study in relation to the derived inhalation exposure limit for flight crew.


This study provides the first reported measurements of PBDE concentrations in air aboard aircraft, and enabled an occupational assessment of inhalation exposures of flight crew aboard aircraft. The distribution of the concentrations for BDEs 47, 99 and 100 were similar to concentrations in other occupational studies, but were an order of magnitude higher than concentrations reported in homes (Table 3). For example, Pettersson-Julander et al.39 reported a median BDE 47 concentration of 3.4 ng/m3 in air of an electronic recycling plant in Sweden (maximum =16 ng/m3), and Muenhor et al.40 reported a median concentration of 2.4 ng/m3 in an e-waste storage facility in Thailand while shredders were operational (maximum =2.9 ng/m3); median and maximum values measured aboard aircraft in this study were 1.3 and 20 ng/m3. By contrast, these values are higher than concentrations in offices where median concentrations of BDE 47 ranged from <0.1–0.69 ng/m3, and also higher than found in US homes (median=0.23 ng/m3; maximum=1.4 ng/m3; Table 3).

Table 3 Central tendency and maximum PBDE concentrations in air (ng/m3) in occupational and home environments reported in the peer-reviewed literature.

For BDE 209, the median concentration in aircraft (<1.2 ng/m3) was nearly 20 times lower than the median concentrations in the electronics recycling plant (25 ng/m3) and several hundred times lower than the median found in the e-waste storage facility (median=615 ng/m3).39, 40 The maximum BDE 209 concentration on aircraft, 2100 ng/m3, was higher than the maximum values found in other occupational studies. However, this maximum value for BDE 209 is at the extreme tail of the distribution values measured in this study; the 95th percentile concentration on aircraft (39 ng/m3) may be more representative and was lower than maximum values reported in other studies. Similar to the other congeners, BDE 209 concentrations in aircraft were elevated in comparison to concentrations measured in office environments (maximum: 0.32 ng/m3) and US homes (median =0.17 ng/m3; maximum =1.6 ng/m3; Table 3).

Median cabin air concentrations of BDE 183, the primary congener in the OctaBDE commercial product, were similar to those reported for occupationally exposed workers. For example, the median concentration in this study (<1.3 ng/m3) was lower than the concentration measured for dismantlers in the electronics recycling plant (5.1 ng/m3);40 while the maximum concentration in this study (98 ng/m3) was within the range reported for workers in the dismantling hall of an electronics recycling facility and those working with shredders in the same facility.41 The concentrations of BDE 183 in aircraft were several orders of magnitude greater than those reported in an office with computers and also concentrations in US homes.31, 41

Using the estimates of ADD, and setting inhalation exposure limits based on the difference between the dose from all other exposures and EPA's RfD, mirrors an approach used by EPA to determine PCB exposure limits in the air of schools, termed “Public Health Levels”. The calculations for ADD in this study were performed using the same formulas and methods used by EPA, but substituting aircraft exposures for schools. The assumptions used in our study were selected to be conservative (i.e., health-protective) in order to minimize the chance of under-representing risk. For example, in our most conservative model, we used the 95th percentile dust concentrations measured on aircraft in another study6 when evaluating aircraft exposure, the upper percentile daily dust ingestion rate for adults, the 95th percentile estimate for breathing rate (21.3 m3/day), and assumed flight crew exposure occurred during 1000 h on aircraft per year (approximately 167 days of the year for 6 h per day). The results of this analysis indicate that measured PBDE concentrations are well below these derived inhalation exposure limits.

The comparison between the measured concentrations and the defined exposure limits was formally evaluated using a robust statistical technique and guidance from AIHA.36, 38 AIHA endorses the use of a control banding technique to evaluate occupational exposures, where exposures are classified into one of five control band groups based on the percentage of the occupational exposure limit. Each control band also has a corresponding set of recommended response actions intended to provide guidance in minimizing worker exposure, where necessary. The 95th percentile concentrations in this study were <1% of the defined exposure limits, which places this exposure into the lowest control band category, defined as “Highly-Controlled”.36 A strength of our analysis was the incorporation of BDA to evaluate the full distribution of values that our sampling data represent in order to determine the likelihood that an exposure measurement could exceed the defined exposure limit. This analysis evaluates the 95th percentile exposure concentration against the defined exposure limit. Based on this analysis, the probability of observing an exposure concentration in air >1% of the defined exposure limit is zero.

This study has several limitations. The air samples collected in this study were not originally intended to be analyzed for PBDEs and the air sample media were not pre-cleaned for PBDEs before sampling. The result is that several quality assurance samples (field blanks and media blanks) had detectable levels of PBDE congeners. To account for this, the data in this study were blank-corrected and reporting limits were conservatively set as three times the standard deviation after blank-correction. One negative consequence is that reporting limits were higher than reported for other studies. This may impact interpretation of the percent of samples with detected PBDEs (<30% for BDEs 99 and 100) but does not impact the overall findings of the study. Additional information on the age of planes and date of any refurbishment in relation to PBDE concentrations in air would have been interesting to investigate but these data were not collected at the time of the study because the focus was originally not on flame retardants. The exposure concentrations were also measured at cruising altitude, a time when aircraft ventilation rates are maximal and can exceed 15 air changes per hour. Ventilation rates while aircraft are on the ground are lower and therefore exposure concentrations in the aircraft could be higher during this part of travel. This study also evaluated inhalation exposures for flight crew but not other potentially important occupational groups. Future work should evaluate maintenance crew exposures because of the expected higher exposure concentrations while aircraft are on the ground and potential for longer exposure durations. Last, inhalation exposure risk was assessed by comparing calculated dose estimates to EPA's RfDs. RfDs are not published for BDEs 100 or 183, so determining risk for these congeners by the methodology used in our research was not possible. Additionally, the RfDs are based on extrapolations from toxicological data, and current human dose estimates13 indicate that current exposures do not produce daily doses that exceed the RfDs. However, human epidemiological investigations suggest that there are health effects from PBDEs at exposures observed in the general population,21, 23, 24, 25 suggesting that the current approach for deriving RfDs and assessing risk for endocrine disrupting compounds may not be appropriately accounting for potential “low-dose” effects.42,43

The opportunity to collect in-flight air samples is rare and the study data provide important insights into understanding occupational exposures for flight attendants and pilots. This occupational exposure assessment indicates that inhalation exposures aboard in-flight aircraft are not expected to cause the ADD of PBDEs to exceed health-based benchmarks set by EPA.


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This study was funded by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Aerospace Medicine through the National Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Airliner Cabin Environment Research (ACER)/Research in the Intermodal Transport Environment (RITE), Cooperative Agreements 07-C-RITE-HU and 04-C-ACE-HU. Although the FAA has sponsored this project, it neither endorses nor rejects the findings of this research. Results of Cooperative Research between the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, and Battelle Memorial Institute. We thank the participating airlines for their invaluable support.

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Correspondence to Joseph G Allen.

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Allen, J., Sumner, A., Nishioka, M. et al. Air concentrations of PBDEs on in-flight airplanes and assessment of flight crew inhalation exposure. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 23, 337–342 (2013).

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  • PBDEs
  • airplanes
  • exposure
  • inhalation

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