Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
“I fly as little as possible, really. Because I’m afraid.”
Heather Poole, an American Airlines flight attendant of 21 years, has spent as much time as possible on the ground over the past nine months. Last September, American issued stylish new uniforms to its flight attendants, pilots, and representatives, and those uniforms are making it very tough for her to do her job. Poole is one of at least 3,000 flight attendants who, since the introduction of the uniforms, have reported experiencing symptoms including respiratory problems, lightheadedness, fainting, rashes, and stopped periods. Some flight attendants have been able to keep working through their symptoms, while others have stopped flying altogether.
Soon after Poole first tried on her new uniform, which was manufactured by Twin Hill, she started to feel lethargic. Like many of her colleagues, she didn’t immediately link the symptoms to her uniform. “When it’s clothing, you don’t connect the dots,” Poole says. “Nobody says, ‘Hey, I wonder if my scarf is the reason why I’m coughing. I wonder if my pants are the reason I have a bloody nose.’”
When Poole had a routine blood test a few months later, she discovered that for the first time in two years, her thyroid was outside the normal range. That’s when Poole began to consider whether her new uniform was the problem — could the chemicals used to manufacture it be causing these symptoms? Poole’s doctor increased the dosage of her thyroid medication, and Poole started flying in a company-approved “alternative uniform” that consisted of a hodgepodge of off-the-rack pieces that matched American’s aesthetic without making her sick. She topped off the look with an old uniform accessory from several years earlier, a piece nicknamed the “unity scarf” by employees.
Poole figured the problem was solved — until she developed a mysterious cough in the air. “I coughed forever [during flights],” she says. “In between flights and on layovers it would go away.” Then, she noticed another disconcerting trend. “[In the air], my heart rate would go up to 140 beats per minute, sometimes to 150, or even 170. But at home on the ground, it was at 80,” Poole explains. “My heart rate was rising from the chemicals in that one little strip of fabric in that scarf. When I stopped wearing the unity scarf, my heart rate stopped climbing.”
Like Poole, flight attendant Robin Adams-Dejardin, an American employee of 31 years, didn’t initially link her symptoms to her uniform.“It started as such a minor reaction that I didn’t recognize it,” she says. She experienced minor rashes and exhaustion, and her eyes were itchy. “The night before I stopped wearing the uniform I could barely keep my eyes open at work,” she says.
Adams-Dejardin reached a turning point on a drive from Iowa to Chicago to report for work. “I hung up my uniform next to me in the car, and by the time I got to Chicago, I had a full-body rash just from sitting next to it,” she says. “I looked at the uniform and thought, ‘There’s nothing else this could be.’’’ As soon as she put the uniform in the trunk of her car, her rash started to subside.
Adams-Dejardin got permission to wear her old uniform during her shift that night, but as soon as she boarded the plane, she developed more rashes. Her body was reacting to her coworkers’ uniforms. “Once I got home, I put the new uniform on a rolling garment rack and put it in the shed, but just picking it up caused my fingers to turn bright red.”
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents more than 26,000 American Airlines flight attendants, reports receiving more than 3,000 complaints from employees experiencing reactions to the uniform. Informal counts in private Facebook groups for those affected have reached up to 8,000.
American Airlines, however, insists the uniforms are safe. The airline spent over $1 million on three rounds of tests on the uniforms, and points to the results as proof that the uniforms are safe to wear. So why are flight attendants fainting on the job and struggling to breathe during their shifts?
In 2011, Alaska Airlines flight attendants were issued uniforms from Twin Hill, and the reports of illness were overwhelming. Around 10 percent of employees reported reactions, and the airline issued a recall. “Safety and welfare of our employees is our first priority,” Alaska Airlines spokesperson Halley Knigge says of the recall. She had no comment on American’s current situation. (Two years later, 164 affected flight attendants filed a lawsuit against Twin Hill and ultimately lost. Twin Hill has since referenced this ruling in a letter to the APFA regarding the American debacle.)
The APFA conducted its own tests on the garments and found that one piece of the uniform, a short-sleeved jacket, was found to have levels of cadmium higher than the acceptable textile industry standard. The APFA’s tests also determined that the uniform contained formaldehyde, nickel, and tetrachlorophenol — a corrosive chemical known to cause eye irritation. While that hardly sounds great, it doesn’t necessarily nail down the culprit. Each individual garment may contain varying levels of each chemical, so it’s difficult to pinpoint whether every uniform contains the exact same cocktail of irritants.
“The fashion industry alone has access to 8,000 chemicals that are known carcinogens and hormone disrupters,” says Andrea Plell, ethical fashion expert and founder of Ecologique Fashion. “And we’ve never studied how they react together.”
Some flight attendants have expressed concern that chemicals onboard planes may be reacting with the chemicals in their clothing. Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health, explains that while she’s not sure how likely such a reaction is, she does know that “airplanes in general have higher levels of flame retardants than what you find in people’s houses or offices.” According to Cox, sometimes a small amount of exposure to a chemical like formaldehyde can cause a person’s sensitivity to suddenly increase drastically. “California has identified [formaldehyde] as a chemical that causes cancer, and there are lots of other governmental agencies who have identified it as a carcinogen,” she explains.
In March, American teamed with Aramark to provide employees with an “off-the-shelf” alternative to the Twin Hill uniforms. Earlier this month, the airline also announced that it would be parting ways with Twin Hill when its contract expires in 2020. Unfortunately, neither of these moves help much in the short term. It will be several years before the Twin Hill uniforms are retired, and employees wearing the Aramark uniforms are still prone to reactions when exposed to coworkers’ uniforms.
All the while, the airline continues to avoid directly stating that there’s any kind of health issue with the uniforms — and many flight attendants who are unable to work due to their symptoms have been denied workers’ compensation.
When Adams-Dejardin realized her issues with her uniform weren’t getting any better, she filed for workers’ compensation. She was feeling so sick that she had trouble leaving the house, let alone boarding a plane. “The whole time I was burning my own sick hours, assuming that the workers’ compensation would come through and cover it,” she explained. After a two-month wait, her claim was denied.
After Adams-Dejardin’s initial reaction to the uniform, she began feeling ill around household chemicals and clothes she used to have no issue with. After seeing eight doctors, she was diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity, a controversial disorder that is thought to be triggered by short-term exposure to chemicals.
“At that point, my doctor essentially said, ‘If you can’t work in the uniform, you have to quit your job.’” Adams-Dejardin is now on a long-term medical leave, but her sick hours will expire at the end of next month and she’ll stop receiving income. She moved into her parents’ home in California to save money. “I’d had hundreds of sick hours that I’d saved up over 31 years, so I was in a better position than a lot of people, but that’s gone. Now I’m 52 years old and living with my parents.” She’s slowly getting better but has a long way to go, and still has moments where she has a tough time breathing. “My full-time job now is getting well.”
Despite such an obvious problem, it’s been surprisingly easy for airlines and outsiders alike to dismiss the flight attendants’ reactions. “Newspapers seemed like they were kind of developing a script surrounding [the crisis],” Poole said. “There were headlines like ‘The Curious Case Of The Itchy Flight Attendants,’ like it’s some cutesy bedtime story.” The language instantly changed, however, when a male pilot spoke up about the uniforms. “A pilot stood up and said he felt like he did not have a safe work environment,” Poole says. When his story first surfaced, Poole notes, the tone was far more serious. “They said things like, ‘Pilots are feeling unsafe and unfit to fly.’ And that matters. It affects how people feel about it and how people blow it off.”
This isn’t the first time a mostly female workforce has suffered at the hands of fashion — and gaslighting. When a host of female office employees mysteriously fell ill in the ’70s, it was first dismissed as hysteria. It was later discovered that limited ventilation combined with the chemicals of the offices’ chic-for-the-era wood accents, synthetic carpeting, and machines were causing the problem.
In the 1920s, young women were hired to hand paint glow-in-the-dark wristwatch faces in a New Jersey factory. The women used radium to paint the watches, and were encouraged by their bosses to periodically put their paintbrushes in their mouths to reshape the tip of the brush. The radium, of course, soon revealed itself to be toxic, and by 1927, over 50 of the “radium girls” had died from poisoning.
For many American Airlines employees, it seems that the goal is simply getting through each day with an uncertain future. Poole still tries to avoiding flying when possible, but is running out of options. “I’m out of my savings, so now what?” she says. “The hardest thing for me is trust. Because when you trust a company to take care of you, and they don’t, and they’re telling you something is safe when it’s obviously not — it’s an awakening.”