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Some of our best topics are suggested to us by our readers. This article is in response to a question from an Australian reader about pimple-like sores, severe eye irritation, neck problems including crepitation, or "clicking," and degeneration of bone.

Once in a while, our readers send us a real medical mystery. Recently, a reader in Australia queried (paraphrasing here because the search engines don't let us quote directly without penalizing our pages):

"I was exposed to jet engine emissions every 30 minutes for 2 months, mostly from 2-engine jet planes and the occasional jumbo jet. One day we were exposed to a direct blast of jet engine fumes for a full 10 minutes before we were able to leave our work area.

Everyone where I work has breathing problems. We have severe skin irritation in the form of pimple-like sores and eye irritation. We all have "clicking" in the neck. I'm the only member of our crew who has been able to stand the pain of lying still long enough to get an MRI, and I've been diagnosed with deterioration of the bone in my cervical spine (the neck bones)."

The reader went on to report that he was exposed to brush fire smoke and ash, and that no experts in Australia care to comment on his situation.

We can't give medical advice or expert opinion, because we don't practice medicine through this site and we're not on the ground in Australia. But we do have a great deal of information about the toxic effects of jet fuel that may help you understand what could be going on in this particular case.

Jet Fuel Is a Well-Known and Highly Toxic Immunomodulator

It isn't exactly news to the scientific community that jet fuel exposure causes a wide range of health problems. There are not just one or two but, at the time this article was written, 217 published studies of the medical effects of exposure to "jet propulsion fuel" or "JP-8" in the mainstream medical literature. [1]

The problems caused by jet fuel exposure are particularly acute for people who work on the tarmac where jet engines are running. The problems caused by this toxin are mediated by the immune system itself, specifically through the action of a group of white blood cells called mast cells. These cells carry microscopic packets of histamine, the chemical that causes the characteristic symptoms burning, irritation, and inflammation associated with allergies. Exposure to the ultraviolet light of the sun draws mast cells out of the bloodstream and into the skin.

Jet Fuel Also Finds Its Way into Lungs and Bone

When you are exposed to jet fuel, it also finds its way into the lungs as you breathe. This is true of both the older jet fuel, JP-8, and the newer synthetic jet fuel, S-8. Once jet fuel gets into the lungs, it coats the alveoli, the tiny sacs that collect air within the lungs. This coating makes it harder for the alveoli to contract as the lungs push air out to remove carbon dioxide. [2]

And jet fuel also has an impact on the health of our bone marrow.

US Air Force studies have found that even a relatively short 1-hour exposure to jet fuel results in destruction to bone marrow 4 hours later. [3]

If there isn't further exposure to jet fuel vapors, the bone marrow can begin to heal itself after about 24 hours. But if there is repeated exposure to jet fuel, the damage to bone marrow becomes cumulative and permanent. [3]

Jet Fuel Toxins More Of A Problem To Airfield Workers Than To Travelers

While this text is mostly written with people who are exposed to jet fuel professionally, and over long periods of time, in mind, some readers will now be worried. If you are a frequent flier for business or pleasure, should you be worried about jet fuel exposure?

People who are exposed to jet fuel vapors only occasionally typically have a chance to recover between flights. For them, problems from jet fuel are likely to be minimal, if they are present at all. But if you work at the airport, especially if you work in close proximity to planes, or you live under a flight path, the toxic effects of jet fuel pollution should be a concern for you. Here are seven facts airfield and airport workers and people who live close (within 1 mile/2 km) to airports need to know.

1. The negative health effects of jet fuel exposure are greater at higher altitudes. Exposure to jet fuel fumes is a significant public health problem in the Andes mountains in Bolivia and Peru.

2. Jet fuel fumes are especially toxic to children. Exposure to jet fuel fumes during pregnancy has been associated with babies who have a lower birth weight, and exposure to jet fuel fumes during the first three years of life can result in slower intellectual development and higher rates of ADD and ADHD.

3. Jet fuel, lubricants, de-icing agents, and hydraulic fluid don't cause permanent eye damage — if they are immediately rinsed from the eyes with saline solution. A study at the Stroger (Cook County General) Hospital in Chicago found that none of the patients who were allowed to get treatment at the emergency room after these liquids got into their eyes suffered permanent damage. Of course, the researchers couldn't measure the effects of toxic exposure on people who were never let off work long enough to go to the doctor.

4. Jet fuel exposure increases the severity of influenza. Scientists at the University of Arizona have found that exposure to jet fuel increases the production of two immune-suppressive chemicals, interleukin-10 and prostaglandin E2. Since jet fuel exposure activates mast cells that cause inflammation, the body's production of these two chemicals reduces skin inflammation, but also takes away its first line of defense against viral infection. Airport workers are especially susceptible to the flu, and are among the groups of people who benefit most from flu shots (although flu shots are not perfect protection against influenza infection).

5. People who work around jet fuel fumes are exposed to especially high amounts of the carcinogen naphthalene. This hazardous chemical, which is also found in moth balls, accumulates in the body of airport tarmac workers at a rate 1000 to 3000 times higher than the general public. It is a neurotoxin that can lead to shortness of breath, among other health threats.

6. Exposure to jet exhaust is more toxic than exposure to jet fuel. The process of heating jet fuel releases an even greater variety of toxic compounds into the air.

7. Different jet fuels cause different degrees of inflammation to the skin. When airport workers have severe skin irritation one day and not-so-severe skin inflammation the next, chances are they are being exposed to a slightly different fuel blend. Nearly every airport worker will find one particular jet fuel almost intolerable, but won't be bothered at all by others. This can make it difficult to focus management attention on the problem, since managers will tend to assume inconsistent reports of problems are due to malingering rather than jet fuel toxicity.

What can you do to "detox" after exposure to jet fuel?

Detoxing is a job for the liver, which uses nearly all of its enzymes in the process of metabolizing the poisons that get into the bloodstream when a person is exposed jet fuel fumes. It's important not to add to the burden of detoxification on the liver by drinking heavily, and if you must smoke, at least be sure you

  • (1) do not take antioxidant supplements, which can throw the process of detoxification out of balance in smokers but
  • (2) eat a variety of vegetables and fruits, at least a serving or two a day, preferably more. Simply getting 7 to 10 servings of plant foods in the diet every week helps airport workers and people who live near airports deal with some of the toxic effects of jet fuel.
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