Dear Kamala Harris, Our Airline Uniform Made Us Sick

Dear Kamala Harris,

I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for caring about people, all people, regardless of race, age, gender, social status or sexual preference. Thank you for standing up and fighting to make this world a better place by shedding light on a serious problem we have in the U.S. with toxic chemicals in everyday products. Whether it’s a nerve agent in pesticides harming children, formaldehyde in popular hair-straightening products, lead in name-brand cookies, or a diesel engine exhaust problem in the Port of Long Beach, these issues affect our long-term health.

A year and a half ago I was unknowingly exposed to toxic chemicals at work. These chemicals compromised my health and turned my world upside down. Now I have to go out of my way to avoid the chemicals that make me sick. Problem is, it’s hard to avoid something when you don’t know where it’s hiding. This is why Proposition 65, The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, is so important to me.

As a resident of California, I’m thankful to live in a state that allows people to make informed decisions about protecting themselves from chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. The new Clear and Reasonable Warning requirements that will come into effect in California under Proposition 65 on August 30, 2018, is a day to celebrate, now that long-form warnings must include reference to at least one substance in question.

Before September 20, 2016, I didn’t really care about Prop 65. I never thought twice about what the vague and generic warnings really meant. Before September 20, 2016, I assumed if I could buy something in a name brand store it was safe. I assumed products were tested for safety. I had no idea the companies that profit off the products they sell are also the ones in charge of testing their products for safety. A conflict of interest, don’t you think?

Before September 20, 2016, the cumulative effects of daily exposure to so-called low doses of known carcinogens never worried me.

But everything changed when I began wearing a number of questionable chemicals to work. That day, September 20, 2016, is the day American Airlines rolled out a new uniform for its employees.

If you had told me before September 20, 2016 that clothing could make me sick, I would have laughed. Now I’m living a nightmare; so are close to 5,000 other flight attendants and 600 pilots.

The scary part is we aren’t alone. Several years ago, Alaska Airlines flight attendants also experienced the same type of reactions to their uniform made by Twin Hill, the same manufacturer that makes American’s new uniforms. These reactions include thyroid disruption, vertigo, racing heart, extreme swelling, extreme fatigue, blurry vision, eye infections that don’t respond to antibiotics, flu-like symptoms, and more. (You can read the study Harvard published on the Alaska uniform HERE.)

Last week I sent you a tweet that angered quite a few people. Most of those people were co-workers who don’t like that I speak out about the uniform crisis at American. I wrote that I might be the best thing that ever happened to you. Oh, I know my tweet sounds arrogant, but I stand behind my words. I could be the best thing that ever happened to you only because I’m a lab rat, a guinea pig. I, along with thousands of others who’ve had terrible reactions to toxic chemicals, can help you prove just how dangerous some of these chemicals truly are. We can also help you prove why it’s so important to let people know what, exactly, they’re being exposed to. We deserve the right to know.

Let the record state that my uniform “sensitized” me to known sensitizers found in the uniform. I assume you’re familiar with the dangers of formaldehyde based on your involvement in the case against Brazilian Blowouts. We, too, have also been exposed to formaldehyde, as well as other dangerous chemicals. What makes our situation unique is the uniform.

We wear the same uniform every time we go to work for up to 12 hours a day, 15 or more days a month in a confined tube with recycled air. A uniform includes several different pieces. All of these pieces are treated with chemicals. These chemicals are what make a uniform a uniform, more durable and longer-lasting than retail clothing. Take formaldehyde, for instance, a preservative that also makes clothing wrinkle free. It can’t be washed out. It isn’t meant to be washed out. We’re layering harmful chemicals on top of harmful chemicals. This is why synergistic and cumulative effects matter.

I stopped wearing the uniform over a year ago. I wear lookalike pieces now. But it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing when my co-workers are still wearing the new uniform. Proximity reactions are real. Some people are having first-time reactions a year and a half after the uniform was introduced, which is proof the situation is only going to get worse. This is proof it takes some people a little longer to absorb / inhale enough chemicals to hit their “toxic threshold” and have a reaction. How many sick people are too many sick people? Judging by American’s inaction, It’s not 5,000, the number of flight attendants who have been sickened so far. What about 10,000? What’s the magic sick-person number?

Ask American Airlines CEO, Doug Parker, about the uniform crisis and he’ll skew the data by focusing on flight attendants. I believe he does this because we’re still a female dominated industry, which makes us easier to blow off and ignore. He won’t tell you about the 600 pilots that reported having a reaction to their uniform, but he will skew the data even more by only sharing the number of American Airlines flight attendants who’ve had chemical reactions, conveniently leaving out the 30% of regional (American Eagle) flight attendants who are also suffering.

He won’t tell you about the gate agents and customer service agents who’ve also had reactions. We don’t know the exact number of how many are suffering because nobody is keeping track. They don’t have a way to report it. To really sweep things under the rug, he’ll tell you the total number of people who work for American, and then let it be known how many of those people like the way the uniform looks, as if looks, not health, are important.

American loves to claim “team member” safety is their first priority. The only thing American does to protect team members is remind us that they spent a million dollars to test the uniform. But that money went to prove it’s safe, not to get to the bottom of what’s wrong. (You can read more about that test, and some of the chemicals that were found, HERE).

Meanwhile some “team members” who have been sickened by the uniform are harassed by management over their attendance record. Others have been forced to quit. None of them are being paid because workers comp has declined all claims.

After the Twin Hill debacle, American made a great show in the media of announcing a new vendor, as if the problem is solved, but we won’t see another uniform until 2020. That’s in two years. Issuing a uniform four years after the problem uniform was released is in essence doing nothing. Many of us won’t make it that long.

The uniform crisis has been an awakening. The worst part for me, besides the fact that I might have to quit a job that I love, is the divide it’s created between co-workers. The toxic uniform has created a toxic work environment, and American isn’t taking responsibility for it.

Those who haven’t had a reaction (yet) like to tell people like me to quit. Why? So American Airlines can hire new people they can pay less to make sick? That doesn’t seem right. It’s not like I can’t do the job. It’s what we wear that’s the problem. By dragging this out, many people will get too sick and will be forced to quit. Another win for American. In the airline industry, ageism is real, sexism is real, and cost-cutting fuels it.

Meanwhile the EPA is rolling back regulations that will expose people to even higher levels of known carcinogens. Unless you live in California, nobody has a clue that most of what they’re buying contains harmful chemicals. The assumption of safety that we live under is false.

I live in California, but my uniform didn’t come with a warning. It would have been nice to have been warned, to have had a choice in the matter. It would have helped to connect the dots a little quicker. Now I don’t get to go back to the old me. My life has changed forever.

Like you, I believe in fighting for change. I want to help educate people about what’s going on so they can make healthier choices. If there’s anything I can do to help you, please reach out to me.


Heather Poole

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