Connect the Dots: Can Airplanes and Toxic Uniforms be Linked to Thyroid Disorders and Infertility?

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times published a story about cats that have hypothyroidism. A few people tweeted the link to me. One person wrote that it reminded him of me and what’s going on with the new uniforms at American Airlines.

According to the article, feline hypothyroidism didn’t exist when Dr. Mark Peterson entered veterinarian school in 1972. Today, he treats nothing else.

“Research links the strange feline disease to a common class of flame retardants that have blanketed the insides of our homes for decades. But even as the findings may answer one epidemiological question, they raise another in its place. If household chemicals are wreaking havoc on the hormones of cats, what are they doing to us?”

FLAME RETARDANTS. That was the first thing I thought when I read the article. I might have even gasped. Airplane interiors are covered in flame retardants.

My second thought was, why the hell is the New York Times covering hypothyroidism in cats and not hypothyroidism in flight attendants like me when so many of us have reported having issues related to uniforms. Cats, I suppose, are more exciting — at least when it comes to serious health concerns. Why else has the media continued to ignore our serious reactions to toxic chemicals in clothing?

I was 25-years-old and had just started working as a flight attendant when I first learned about hypothyroidism. I weighed 120 pounds when a flight attendant said to me, “If you ever get fat check your thyroid.” I must have looked at her funny because then she added, “I used to be fat.”

I had a hard time believing the woman with the incredible figure who stood before me stacking cups, napkins and sugar packets into an insert on top of the beverage cart had ever been fat. Compared to her, I looked fat. I asked her to define the word fat.

“Huge,” she said.

That day I had no idea how much a totally random conversation in the coach galley on a Super 80 with a flight attendant I’d just met a few hours earlier would mean to me. At 30,000 feet somewhere over the Midwest I made mental note to check my thyroid if I ever got fat, which is why, for years I thought of hypothyroidism as a fat lady problem.

Now, 20 years later, I have hypothyroidism. I’m here to tell you that being fat isn’t the worst symptom. All the symptoms are equally bad. They include brain fog, severe fatigue, hair loss, and infertility. Hypothyroidism, in fact, is a leading cause of difficulty in achieving and maintaining pregnancy.

As a flight attendant, I spend a lot of time sitting on jumpseats flying across the country listening to sad stories. We call it jumpseat therapy: It’s what happens when you find yourself between services with nothing to do on long flights. We talk about everything. Sex and health are popular topics. I might not remember someone’s name, but rest assured I know their story. So I was well aware that miscarriages happen, often, before I met my husband and thought about having kids.

I was 33 when I had my first miscarriage. I wasn’t surprised when it happened, thanks to all the conversations I’d had in the air. What did surprise me, though, was the thick packet of information on radiation I received from American Airlines when I became pregnant. I remember thinking, shouldn’t I have received this information before I started flying? Like, in training? Because according to the paperwork it was already too late. Due to radiation, I could be at risk for a miscarriage.

That’s not all. Because of my job, my unborn child could also be at a higher risk for cancer. And because my husband was a frequent flier our unborn baby’s possible cancer risk increased even more. None of this was proven, of course, but it was brought to my attention so I could choose whether it was worth the risk to fly while I was pregnant. I chose to stay on the ground.

My first pregnancy ended at 11 weeks. My second pregnancy ended at 8 weeks. My third pregnancy ended at 6 weeks. With each pregnancy I gained a little weight. I never checked my thyroid. Instead I joined a miscarriage forum for women who had had multiple miscarriages. We came from all walks of life. We were all different ages and lived in different parts of the country. For a long time, I wondered if flight attendants really had more miscarriages than women who worked on the ground or if flight attendants just talked about it more on the jumpseat? I chalked it up to talking. Never mind the hundreds of pages worth of information on radiation that had been issued as a precaution — information that concerned the airline enough to allow us to take time off.

My fourth pregnancy, thank God, was a success. But after my son was born something strange happened. I lost a lot of weight. I thought I might be one of the lucky ones, like one of those supermodels people hate for being skinny after giving birth. Then, out of nowhere, I started gaining weight. It didn’t matter how much I worked out or how little I ate, I got fatter and fatter and fatter. My face was bloated; my eyes turned to slits. When I reached 170 pounds I decided to check my thyroid.

Nine months after my son was born I was officially diagnosed with hypothyroidism.

“I don’t know how you’ve been able to function,” my doctor said looking over my blood test results. “You should be in a coma.”

My TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) was 388-point-something. Normal TSH is between 0.5–4.5. My doctor said I was the worst case he’d ever seen. He prescribed medication that I’ve been on ever since.

Eventually I lost the weight. I also lost 3 more babies. I was 5 months along the last time it happened. That was three years ago. It was a dark time.

Over the years I’ve wondered, why me? My mother never had a miscarriage. My sister never had a miscarriage. My grandmothers didn’t have miscarriages either. I had six.

Now, thanks to the uniform crisis at American Airlines (and hours of research on toxic chemicals), I think I may know why I’ve had issues with infertility.

I’ve been documenting what’s been going with the uniform for nine months now. Long story short, toxic chemicals in the uniform have made thousands of American Airline employees sick. From rashes and hives to thyroid issues. From serious respiratory issues to changes in menstrual cycles. From bloody noses to extreme swelling of faces and limbs. From eye infections that don’t respond to antibiotics to flu-like symptoms.

Flight attendants for Alaska Airlines had the same set of health issues a few years ago with uniforms made by the same company. Even though their uniform tested safe, those illnesses must mean something.

My thyroid had been stable for years. I get my blood tested every three months. My TSH has been below a 2 (normal) for years. I have the data to prove it. After 6 days in the new uniform, it rose outside of the normal range. I might have blown it off if I hadn’t read about the flight attendants at Alaska having thyroid issues after they were issued new uniforms by Twin Hill.

That’s all it took to get me to stop wearing the uniform. My doctor upped my dose of medication, and I switched to look-alike uniform pieces. Problem solved, right? Wrong. I wish it were that simple. Being in close proximity to other flight attendants uniform makes me sick too. Proof that it’s not just dermal absorption, but chemical inhalation too, which is why I continue to have respiratory issues and feel pin pricks all over my body — at work.

Meanwhile American Airlines continues to say the uniform is safe. Executives continue to talk about the million dollars the company has spent testing the uniform….to prove it’s safe.

One thing I’ve learned since the new uniform rolled out on September 20 is it’s a lot cheaper to prove something is safe than to prove it’s unsafe. And since then American execs have stated repeatedly that the uniforms are safe and offered questionable test results to back up their statement. Regardless of the fact that thousands of people are seriously ill, people who didn’t have these health issues before September.

Since September, I’ve seen more doctors than I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve learned things about toxic chemicals I never knew before. Before the new uniform I didn’t know what “sensitizers” were or what “synergy” meant, and I sure as heck would have never dreamed I’d develop “MCS” (multiple chemical sensitivity). Now I’m practically an expert on the subject.

Before the new uniform, I had no idea there was a group of doctors at Harvard studying flight attendants in relationship to endocrine disruptors, and if I had I wouldn’t have cared. A few months ago, I begged one of the doctors, Eileen McNeely, to study me, and then I mailed her a few uniform pieces to be tested.

Dr. McNeely has a paper coming out focusing on uniforms and flight attendant health. It looks specifically at endocrine-disrupting flame retardants and thyroid disease. She’s been studying flight attendants because aircraft are full of flame retardants. In her study she found that women with the highest concentration of flame retardants in their blood were significantly more likely to have a thyroid problem than those with lower concentrations.

Here’s something the media has yet to report regarding the uniform crisis. Since the new uniform rolled out many women have reported having issues with their menstrual cycle. Women who’ve been in menopause for 10 years are now bleeding. Women in their 20’s have skipped periods. One flight attendant shared this in our uniform reaction group on Facebook: “I’ve had an IUD for 7 years with no periods…suddenly three months after wearing the uniform it came back and has stayed.”

This is worrisome. It’s why American Airlines continues to focus on rashes and hives because it’s easier for people to look away when you can make jokes about itchy flight attendants. It also makes it easier to chalk it up to mass hysteria or a bunch of women moaning.

We’re not moaning. We’re fighting for a safe place to work. We’re thinking about future children.

Unfortunately, many flight attendants who haven’t had a reaction don’t believe there’s a problem until they’re personally affected. By then it might be too late. What they don’t realize is it just takes some people a little longer to become sensitized to the chemicals in the uniform. It’s all about absorbing the right amount of chemicals.

I doubt I’ll be getting pregnant again, but the next time I sit on the jumpseat with a young colleague you can be certain I won’t be talking to her about getting fat. Instead we’ll talk about cats, the new uniforms and about what American Airlines must do to guard her health and the health of any children she plans to bear.

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Heather Poole View All →

Yeah, that's me, the one standing in the aisle wearing flammable polyester...

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