Flight attendants say their uniforms made them seriously ill

Tracey Silver-Charan didn't suspect her new uniform was at fault when she began feeling "violently sick" at work in 2016. A flight attendant for 37 years, she had been through several uniform changes by the time American Airlines introduced new workwear for all its employees in September of that year. But soon she notified her supervisors she was suffering persistent health problems on the job. Whenever she came home from a trip, she'd start to feel better.

"I was having severe respiratory distress," Silver-Charan, a 61-year-old based in Los Angeles, told The Washington Post. "I couldn't even breathe. And my voice would go hoarse. I would feel like I was going to faint. I got some rashes."

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A lawsuit filed in 2017 by 425 employees of American Airlines and its affiliates alleges these problems and others were caused by formaldehyde, a common additive to prevent wrinkles, that was applied to cotton blouses in a Chinese fabric mill. Silver-Charan was one of four plaintiffs awarded over $1 million in a verdict delivered Oct. 25 by a California jury in a case against manufacturer Twin Hill and its former parent company, Tailored Brands.

The superior court in Alameda County ordered the judgment Friday, more than a week after the jury delivered the verdict.

Daniel Balaban, the employees' lead attorney, called the uniforms a "defective product that harms people," saying that "no reasonable person would have dreamed they could have ever caused them serious harm."

The verdict could establish a new precedent for determining the risk that uniforms pose to airline workers' health, opening the door to future settlements or further litigation involving the hundreds of flight attendants that have taken uniform suppliers to court. The lawsuit is one of several filed by flight attendants over uniforms in the last decade.

"Hopefully, it sends a message to the defendant and insurance companies to try to resolve these cases," Balaban said of the potential for future litigation. "But if they're not, we're going to try these cases one batch at a time."

Tailored Brands and its attorneys declined a request to comment on the case. American Airlines has not responded to a request for comment.

Bronchitis and 'swollen eyes'

In 2016, the lawsuit says, Twin Hill provided about 1.4 million garments and accessories to more than 65,000 American Airlines employees. In an interview with The Post, Silver-Charan said she notified her supervisors that something was wrong by that October, a month after she began wearing the shirts.

She said in an interview she was told to wash the uniform again and to alert them if it continued to be a problem. When conditions didn't improve by later that month, Silver-Charan said, she and thousands of other American Airlines employees who were also facing health challenges with the new blouses were given the option to wear their old ones instead.

Though she was no longer wearing the uniform, Silver-Charan and others continued to face challenges from being around other people wearing the uniform, and their health problems - which allegedly included skin conditions and permanent lung damage - persisted.

Silver-Charan said she was forced to take six months off work in November 2016, when she said the symptoms caused by her new uniform made it too difficult to continue with her job. For those months, she went unpaid.

"I had to go back to work [because] I had to put food on the table and I needed my health insurance because I was sick," she said.

By that point, she said, American Airlines had told employees they could buy uniforms from mass retailers like Macy's or J.C. Penney if they needed. But it didn't matter, Silver-Charan said, because if she was around others who still wore the new uniform, "I would get sick. And this was happening to thousands of us."

Silver-Charan wrote letters to government leaders and public agencies, but found little luck: "Twin Hill, the supplier, acted like it was a minor rash . . . [which] was far from the truth."

"It was frightening. I was sick. I was scared. I was scared of losing my job," Silver-Charan said. "My eyes looked like I was in a boxing match. My eyes were swollen. I would get bronchitis and laryngitis, and I recorded it and sent it to the President and CEO of the company saying: 'Please help us and do something.'"

According to a trial brief, American Airlines terminated its contract with Twin Hill after thousands of flight attendants complained. The airline switched to Lands' End as the supplier for its uniforms in 2020.

A bellwether trial is a format used to decide an issue for a large group using a handful of representatives. In the Alameda County case, the plaintiffs' lawyers selected two representatives for the group of flight attendants, and the defense attorneys for the uniform manufacturer selected another two.

The jury awarded Silver-Charan $320,000 for economic losses and noneconomic losses, including physical pain and mental suffering. A woman named Brenda Sabbatino received $750,000, the biggest sum.

In an email to The Post, the lead attorney, Balaban, said Sabbatino "developed severe chemical sensitivities to fragrances, perfumes, [and] chemical odors," preventing her from returning to work. Balaban said that she took a medical leave and an early retirement, which is reflected in the $220,000 award for future economic loss.

The two American Airlines employees picked by Twin Hill's defense were Cynda Lyons and Cathy Babcock. They were awarded a combined $15,000 for past economic losses. Balaban said one experienced an upper chest rash for a month, and the other had headaches, fatigue, stomach problems and a mild rash for a month "every time she flew."

"We think that the great majority of the other 400+ flight attendants we represent are similar to the two bellwethers we chose," Balaban wrote, "which will either lead to a substantial similar settlements for them or similar results in future trials."

While American Airlines and Twin Hill did test the uniforms for chemicals, per the legal complaint, the lack of regulation in the U.S. around chemicals in clothing could have hindered further action. The jury voted "no" unanimously when asked if Twin Hill was negligent in designing and supplying its products.

Now, Silver-Charan said she's grateful that the uniforms were replaced and that her story was able to be heard in front of a jury.

The new uniforms post-Twin Hill, she said, haven't caused any problems.

Past problems with uniforms

Then a subsidiary of Tailored Brands, which also owns Men's Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank and other large retailers, Twin Hill had faced problems with uniforms before.

In 2013, flight attendants with Alaska Airlines filed a lawsuit against Twin Hill because of new uniforms they were given in 2010 and 2011. The Alaska Airlines flight attendants documented rashes, eye irritation, hives, blisters and other skin problems - collecting their complaints in a report submitted to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). That organization recommends workers prevent eye contact with formaldehyde, but it provides no recommendation for skin contact.

After three years, and one year after the suit was filed, Alaska Airlines replaced these uniforms with new ones. The company did not acknowledge a possible connection between the uniforms and employees' health problems, however. Twin Hill won the Alaska Airlines trial, which did not make it to a jury.

A 2020 suit against Lands' End for allegedly toxic uniforms by Delta Air Lines employees was also unsuccessful.

When asked about what changed between the Alaska Airlines suit and now, lead attorney Balaban cited a 2018 peer-reviewed study from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study, led by occupational health expert Eileen McNeely, followed hundreds of Alaska Airlines employees before and after the introduction of the Twin Hill uniforms.

The findings showed a stark increase in employees - mostly flight attendants - reporting dermatologic, respiratory and allergic symptoms. Among those were multiple chemical sensitivity, a condition in which individuals become sensitive to a wider range of chemicals, potentially due to repeated exposure to another.

"When they got those uniforms, all those things went up. When they got rid of those uniforms, they went down," McNeely said of the Alaska Airlines employees. "When one airline with thousands of flight attendants introduces a new uniform at the same time, where everyone is wearing the same thing, and a bunch of people get sick, it really does raise red flags."

While chemicals such as formaldehyde continue to be commonplace in U.S. clothing - which undergoes less strict regulation than clothing in places like Europe - flight attendants and other airline employees, like pilots, are at increased risk of exposure due to the nature of their work.

Flight attendants wear their uniforms for hours on end, sometimes even while they sleep on long-haul flights. They're also pushing food carts up and down aisles, which can be grueling and sweaty work at 35,000-feet in the air. All this increases exposure to the clothing and the potentially harmful chemicals in it.

"When we see pictures of these reactions," McNeely said, "it's not unbelievable that they're at the neck, the waist, where things rub when you're sweating."

Flight attendants also work in proximity to each other in a closed cabin environment, further increasing their exposure to the chemicals in their clothing. When flight attendants are given new uniforms, everyone is given the same items to wear at the same time. This uniformity makes it easier to determine whether it's that change in uniforms that causes the health problems, according to McNeely, who also leads the Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study.

Balaban, the attorney, said that despite all the flight attendants in the suit being experienced, international flight attendants, they didn't have adequate protections in place to prevent issues like what happened with the Twin Hill uniforms.

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