Eileen McNeely, Steven J. Staffa, Irina Mordukhovich and Brent Coull
Flight attendants at Alaska Airlines reported health symptoms after the introduction of new uniforms in 2011. The airline replaced the uniforms in 2014 without acknowledging harm. To understand possible uniform-related health effects, we analyzed self-reported health symptoms in crew who participated in the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study between 2007 and 2015, the period before, during, and after the introduction of new uniforms.
We calculated a standardized prevalence of respiratory, dermatological and allergic symptoms at baseline, as well as during and after uniform changes in 684 flight attendants with a varying number of surveys completed across each time point. We used Generalized Estimating Equations (GEE) to model the association between symptoms at baseline versus the exposure period after adjusting for age, gender and smoking status and weighting respondents for the likelihood of attrition over the course of the study period.
We found the following symptom prevalence (per 100) increased after the introduction of new uniforms: multiple chemical sensitivity (10 vs 5), itchy/irritated skin (25 vs 13), rash/hives (23 vs 13), itchy eyes (24 vs 14), blurred vision (14 vs 6), sinus congestion (28 vs 24), ear pain (15 vs 12), sore throat (9 vs 5), cough (17 vs 7), hoarseness/loss of voice (12 vs 3), and shortness of breath (8 vs 3). The odds of several symptoms significantly increased compared to baseline after adjusting for potential confounders.
This study found a relationship between health complaints and the introduction of new uniforms in this longitudinal occupational cohort.
What this paper adds
We know little about the health effects of chemicals in our clothing as compared to substances we ingest, even though skin absorption can be quite efficient and researchers have found metals, dyes, formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers, dioxin, perfluorinated compounds, flame retardants, phthalates and other plasticizers such as diisodecyclmaleate, pesticides and fungicides in clothing.
This study offers a unique window into the potential health effects of textile chemicals after the introduction of new work uniforms in an occupational cohort– a rare opportunity to appreciate a common exposure in a defined population with a specific release date.
We found significantly increased prevalence of symptoms after the introduction of new uniforms including eye pain/dry eyes/itchy eyes, blurred vision, combined EENT, cough, hoarseness/loss of voice combined lower respiratory, itchy/irritated skin, and rash/hives.
These findings together with reports of similar health reactions in yet another U.S. flight attendant population after the introduction of new uniforms this year warrants further investigation of the specific chemical toxicants, clothing concentrations, body burdens and health effects.