An item of uniform worn by Delta’s flight attendants was found to contain a toxic chemical in levels nearly 10x higher than what the popular fast-fashion chain H&M would permit according to lab testing conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA). Delta admitted in January that at least 2,000 flight attendants had made some form of complaint concerning suffering adverse health effects including extreme skin reactions to the Zac Posen-designed uniform.
Delta had previously said that its own independent chemical lab testing of 628 uniform items found there was no “attributable health risk” from wearing the garments which were first introduced in 2018. Soon after the uniform was rolled out some flight attendants reported a host of symptoms including painful itchy rashes, hives, shortness of breath and sore eyes.
The latest “toxic uniform” scandal is said to have helped AFA in its drive to unionize Delta’s flight attendant workforce after allegations surfaced that the Atlanta-based airline was attempting to coverup the true extent of the problems. The airline has since removed an optional apron from the collection after it failed chemical testing and has earmarked $10 million to pay for ‘off the rack’ uniform alternatives for flight attendants who do suffer an adverse reaction.
According to the Association of Flight Attendants, Delta is also planning a “completely new” uniform program in response to the scandal which was originally slated to be completed as early as late 2021. That timeline may, however, be pushed back because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its continuing effects on Delta’s cashflow.
Lab testing conducted on behalf of the union found that the red women’s outerwear coat contained the chemical chromium in levels that were almost 10 times the amount that H&M would allow. The union described chromium as a toxic chemical and an irritant that “should not be present in clothes”.
The tests also found the carcinogen, hexavalent chromium in one style of uniform dress and wool-blend suiting pants for plus size flight attendants. Meanwhile, a style of ‘thistle pink’ shirts contained formaldehyde, albeit within allowed limits.
Unlike Delta’s tests, the recent lab analysis commissioned by AFA was only conducted on a small number of garments which had been donated by flight attendants. All the items tested had not been worn and were still in their original packaging.
The union also admitted that data from the tests “does not tell the whole story” adding that “thousands upon thousands of chemicals” are routinely added to fabrics to impart certain properties like stain resistance and a wrinkle free finish. The same chemicals are said to have caused similar reactions in flight attendants at American Airlines, Alaska and Southwest after new uniforms were introduced.
Both American Airlines and Alaska introduced entirely new uniform collections following their own scandals and attained OEKO-TEX Standard 100 to assure the quality of the garments.
Delta declined to specifically comment on AFA’s own lab testing of its uniform but a spokesperson said that its “top priority has been and continues to be addressing our employees’ concerns.”
“We invested in a rigorous toxicology study to determine if there is a universal scientific issue with the uniform,” an emailed statement from the airline continued. “The results of the study confirm our uniforms meet the highest textile standards – OEKO-TEX – with the exception of the optional apron, which we removed from the collection.”
“We have been working directly with our employees to offer numerous alternative garment options and providing access to the country’s top medical experts,” the statement concluded. AFA continues to push for a complete and immediate removal of the current uniform.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.