Mystery illness sickens airline passengers, crews
12:20 PM PDT on Thursday, March 20, 2008
By CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News
WENATCHEE, Wash. – A Washington State woman could help researchers at the University of Washington with potentially groundbreaking research.
They are trying to unravel a mysterious illness that strikes passengers and crew members aboard commercial airliners.
Seventy-seven-year-old Angie Estes of Wenatchee suffers uncontrollable shaking several times a day.
Watching these tremors is excruciating for her husband Leo.
"It's very scary," he said. "I have no idea because it comes on so fast," said Angie.
"I wish I could stop them, but I can't make them start and I can't make them stop," said Leo.
Angie and Leo Estes had no idea why the tremors started suddenly last month until they saw a KING 5 report on potentially ground-breaking research at the University of Washington.
Geneticist Clem Furlong is trying to hunt down the cause for a mystery illness reported mostly by flight crews worldwide. It causes headaches, nausea and even perhaps neurological damage that has left some crew members unable to fly.
Last month, they took a trip to see family in Phoenix. Angie says the tremors started the day after her flight home.
Two dozen Alaska Airlines flight attendants lost the lawsuit when a King County jury rules there was no proven link between the aircraft and the reported illness.
Airlines and manufacturers, such as Boeing, say millions of dollars in testing has shown cabin air to be generally safe.
But Dr. Furlong is researching a theory that a jet engine oil additive is leaking into the cabin air intake, which is located right near the engine on all commercial airliners. He is looking for evidence that the oil is poisoning human protein in those who've reported illnesses, and he took a blood sample from Angie Estes during a visit to his lab earlier this month.
But before there is a cure, scientists will have to figure out the cause.
After several years of research, Dr. Furlong says he may be just a couple of months away from knowing if that oil additive is the cause of that illness.
Angie and Leo Estes flew on USAir, but the airlines says it know s of no other people who got sick on that flight.