American Airlines uniforms making flight attendants sick, lawsuit says

Flight attendant Lauren Swaringer, 25, keeps her American Airlines uniform in a sealed bag because the sight of it, literally, makes her sick.

"Oh God it's really hot," she said, after showing Fox 46 her dark gray uniform.

Within minutes of coming in contact with it, she began coughing. Something was wrong.

"I"m just feeling really flushed," she said. "My heart's racing. It's beating really fast and I feel shortness of breath."

Two hours later she was in the emergency room.

"As you can tell my lip is swelling," Swaringer said, in a video recorded from the hospital. "My thighs are burning. They're on fire." 

The hospital diagnosed her with "chemical exposure." 

Her symptoms - headaches, shortness fo breath, burning, itching, nausea - started in February, after four months of wearing the new uniform. Swaringer's dermatologist diagnosed her with a skin condition, Angiodema, and Anaphylaxis which he said could be "life threatening."

"Based on the symptomatology related to her work clothes and environment I do not recommend the patient return to work," her dermatologist wrote in a letter.

A Charlotte flight attendant, who did not want to give her name, said the American Airlines uniforms "are doing something." She was skeptical at first but soon developed a urinary tract infection and began getting rashes, hot flashes and headaches.

"I never had hot flashes. I never had rashes," she said. "I never was short of breath. I never experienced anything like that. I've always been fairly healthy."

Their lives have been turned upside down by these strange, mysterious symptoms. Last September, American Airlines rolled out new uniforms by Twin Hill, a Houston clothing manufacturer owned by Tailor Brands, the same company that owns Men's Warehouse and Joseph A. Bank. 

"It's like my whole life turned upside down," said Swaringer. "I went from being completely health to now I'm disabled."

Despite American Airlines' own medical report diagnosing her with irritant contact dermatitis and saying she was "unable to wear [the] uniform," Swaringer says her bosses at PSA, a regional carrier owned by American Airlines, dismissed her concerns. Swaringer is now on disability. Her worker's comp complain was denied and the mounting medical bills could ruin her. 

"They're like, 'Oh whatever you should just retire,'" Swaringer recalled in tears.

The Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 different airlines, says they have received more than 6000 complaints from American Airlines flight attendants, gate agents and pilots. 

"I get called from American Airlines pilots who have documented reactions to these uniforms," said Judith Anderson, an industrial hygienist with AFA-CWA, "Who have had breathing difficulties or rashes or very irritated eyes. That's not somebody I want flying my plane as a passenger."

The uniform's labels show the garments are made overseas in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Vietnam. The union tested them and say they found chemicals like Formaldehyde, along with excessive amounts of chemicals used for "fungicide" and preserving wood, along with the toxic chemical Chlordane, which was banned by the EPA in 1988. 

American Airlines employees recently filed a class action lawsuit against Twin Hill with lawyers calling their uniforms a "clear and present danger." Twin Hill did not immediately respond to a request for comment but said in court documents that "extensive testing has established that the uniforms are safe and do not contain any substance at levels high enough to be capable of causing the reported health effects." 

In June, American Airlines announced it would not renew its contract with Twin Hill, saying employees could wear their old uniforms or purchase an off the rack outfit, which they would be reimbursed for later.

"Despite the fact that multiple rounds of testing have shown that there is nothing wrong with the uniforms, we...would never want someone to feel uncomfortable," said American Airlines spokesperson Katie Cody. "We have already decided to go to a new manufacturer and that process is already moving forward."

Cody says the airline has narrowed the vendors down to five and a new material will be used. But the union worries that could take two more years because the contract is still in place.

They are seeking an immediate recall.

"Given the number and severity of the symptoms reported," said Anderson, "I think it makes much more sense to invest in moving people into alternative uniforms quickly." 

As for Swaringer, all she wants is to be back in uniform and back in the air.

"I worked so hard to be a flight attendant," she said. "I would do whatever it takes to get healthy so I could go back to work but I was told through my dermatologist that I can never be a flight attendant again."

She can't wear the uniform or be around anyone who has it on, she said. 

"It's to the point where you could possibly die," she said her dermatologist told her. 

A GoFundMe has been set up to help Swaringer with her medical expenses:

American Airlines and PSA officials tell Fox 46 they will look into Swaringer's case and try to help her. 

Twin Hill was previously sued by more than 150 Alaska Airlines flight attendants over similar uniform complaints. The case was dismissed last year because the judge felt there was not enough evidence to link employee medical conditions with the uniform's fabric.

PSA Airlines Statement

"We want a uniform everyone feels comfortable wearing and despite multiple rounds of testing proving the uniforms are safe, American already announced that they are moving to a new supplier. In the meantime we have provided multiple alternatives to anyone who has concerns so that no one has to wear a uniform that makes them uncomfortable."