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Do American Airlines' uniforms pose a serious flight hazard?

American didn't get quite the reaction it was hoping for when it rolled out its new look last September. Instead of applause for their new, snappy-gray flight attendant uniforms, the reaction was ... a reaction. Wearers report itching, rashes, hives, respiratory issues and even migraines and thyroid problems.

These problems may seem relatively minor and temporary, but they might not be. One flight attendant interviewed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Sky Talk blog needed more than an antihistamine. After wearing the uniform just twice, with a wash in between, she needed a prednizone pack and a steroid shot and was given an EpiPen to keep handy. Worse yet, others have reported that just working with others wearing the new uniforms can set off a reaction. In other words, a flight attendant's scratchy uniform could potentially set off a reaction among the flight crew.

The company says it has made the issue a priority and has allowed some affected workers to swap out the uniforms, switch back to their old ones, or wear clothing similar to the new uniform. Some flight attendants aren't sure the company has done enough. The uniforms' manufacturer insists the garments are safe.

Is this a comfort issue or a real threat to safety?

Flight attendants' primary responsibility is passenger safety. Part of that may need to include keeping toxic uniforms away from passengers or flight crew who might have a reaction.

Unfortunately, the problem is pretty widespread. The uniforms may have been distributed to some five million employees, and over 4,600 employees had already ordered replacement uniforms when the Sky Talk piece appeared on March 31. The Association of Professional Flight Attendants has received more than 3,000 complaints -- some for serious issues such as endocrine issues.

"I thought I had scabies," said another flight attendant. "My whole body was just crawling."

"Science might say one thing," said a spokesperson for the airline, "but if we have team members that are uncomfortable, we are going to do whatever we can to help find a solution."

What does science say? For one thing, tests conducted by the APFA found formaldehyde, nickel and chromium in the material. Would that be dangerous? Unfortunately, we don't really know. "We know relatively little about chemical exposure through apparel," notes a Harvard professor in the article.

For now, it sounds like many flight attendants won't be wearing the uniform, so it's unlikely that a visit to the cockpit will cause a chain reaction of rashes and migraines.

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