Aspartame & Flying
By Mary Nash Stoddard and George Leighton
“Hello, is this the uh ….Aspartame Consumer Safety Network Hotline?”
“Yes, it is, how can I help you?”
“Someone put this article on the bulletin board in our pilot’s lounge and it has your number on it. I want more information, but I also wanted to tell you what happened to me. I’m a pilot with (a major airline). Last year, I experienced a grand mal seizure before a trip. Several weeks before that, my jaw had started twitching. I was drinking a diet shake two times daily to lose weight. I had no medical problems before that. My doctor suggested it might be due to the Aspartame in the product, but we couldn’t call it that because the FAA does not recognize Aspartame reactions in their regulations. At his suggestion, I quit using the product and have had no problems since.”
“Yes, I know about the FAA’s official position.. I have met with FAA flight surgeons in Washington, D.C. Off the record they acknowledged the problem but claim their hands are tied until the FDA addresses the issue. So, did you lose your medical as so many others have done?”
“I lost it, but my doctor figured that if we could call my seizure an alcohol-related problem, I could just go through an alcohol rehab clinic and that might do it. Turns out it did. I’ve never had a problem with alcohol, but we had to go through the motions so that I could keep my job. The Doctor even used some fancy syndrome name and it worked.”
“I’m really glad you were able to keep your job. Many of your colleagues haven’t been so lucky. I hear some pretty amazing stories from pilots and others on this hotline. Reports of grand mal seizures happening to the captain in flight on a major commercial airline and terrifying safety in flight incidents involving temporary loss of consciousness, vision problems and total disorientation. Not long ago, a call came in to me from a pilot who had a grand mal seizure and ‘crashed’ the simulator during his test. This event prompted a new flurry of activity among employees of that airline. They are now distributing our information about aspartame with a new fervor. You know, one reason the FAA gave us for not notifying all their pilots about this danger is because it has appeared in several flying magazines, and they tell me all the pilots already know about it.”
Hotline callers laugh contemptuously at that piece of logic. It simply isn’t true.
Adverse reaction reports on the pilot’s hotline are treated as confidential unless permission is given to release names and information about case histories. Since the hotline began in 1988, we have received well over 600 pilot related calls. This is a problem of astronomical proportions with disastrous results if left unaddressed by the American public and the FAA. In the October 14, 1989 issue of The Palm Beach Post, Dr. H.J. Roberts wrote … “Several recent plane accidents underscore the need for further inquiry into a heretofore neglected cause of pilot and driver error: confusion and aberrant behavior caused by products containing aspartame (NutraSweet). For example, did the co-pilot who inadvertently hit the disengage button before the recent USAir jet accident, and then acted ‘irrationally’ ingest an aspartame diet soda or coffee sweetened with an aspartame tabletop sweetener? I have repeatedly pointed out these and related problems in many scientific articles and addresses over the past three years. They are based on personal observations and a nationwide study. My report on 157 persons with aspartame-induced confusion and memory loss was published last month. The subjects included trained pilots who developed these and other neurologic psychiatric features … including convulsions and visual problems.”
The first pilot I met who had lost his medical certification to fly was USAF Major Michael Collings. I met him after hearing him testify at the third Senate Hearing on the safety of Aspartame. I spent time with him again when London’s Thames TV flew us into Washington D.C. to tape a special documentary they were doing on the issue. Over coffee one day I asked him to relate more details of his case. I already knew how he traced the problems of tremors and seizures suffered from 1983 to 1985 directly to his patterns of NutraSweet consumption. When his duties took him to remote places where there was no diet soda or diet Kool Aid, he was free of the tremors, and whenever he resumed intake of artificially sweetened beverages, his tremors resumed, growing more severe, and culminating in a grand mal seizure that put him in the hospital and ended his career as a pilot. Collings’ tremors and seizures ended on October 6, 1985, the day he quit ingesting NutraSweet. Michael told me how he had not once but twice turned down the invitation to become a member of the prestigious Thunderbirds.
They could not understand his decision, but he related to me that at the time, he could not fly ‘wingtip to wingtip’ with anyone. They will never know the real reason Major Collings rejected their offer … unless they read it here.
The next pilot I met who had lost his “medical” was Brownwood, Texas pilot, Charles King. He suffered symptoms similar to Major Collings’, and like Collings, he only suffered them during his use of Aspartame products. The FAA took his anecdotal symptoms seriously enough to revoke his medical certificate and end his flying days for a few years. However, King fought the system until he miraculously got his license back in 1990. To date, his is our only real success story. We consider it a major breakthrough.
He hasn’t lost his license, but he almost lost his life. After just two cups of NutraSweetened hot chocolate, pilot George E. Leighton experienced blurred vision so severe he was unable to read instruments on his panel and very narrowly avoided a tragic landing. Safely on the ground, he related his story to the co-workers in his office. Two of them recounted similar symptoms experienced after brief exposure to aspartame. He claims ‘this makes Aspartame particularly frightening to pilots, since in a single pilot IFR, full workload situation, partial impairment of capability can be just as fatal as total impairment (unconsciousness).’ Leighton has become somewhat of an Aspartame activist now, investigating suspicious incidents related to flying and attempts to raise the consciousness of the FAA and others about the issue. Recently he wrote this letter to the editor of the US Air Force Flying Safety magazine after they printed an Aspartame Alert to all Air Force pilots:
“I would particularly direct your attention to the potential altitude effects of the methanol contained in Aspartame. To my knowledge, there has been no investigation of its binding to the hemoglobin (like carbon monoxide), thereby inducing hypoxia as suggested by Dr. Phil Moskal. Perhaps your Air Force Flight Surgeons would be interested in pursuing this from a medical viewpoint. I do not have the resources to pursue such an investigation and the FAA is stonewalling the whole Aspartame issue. The FAA’s inaction is very likely politically motivated.. As a General Aviation News article points out, Samuel Skinner the boss of the FAA as Secretary of Transportation at the time was formerly employed by NutraSweet’s law firm, and Spotlight, April 6, 1992, reveals that his wife is presently employed by that firm. Later, as President Bush’s Chief of Staff, Samuel Skinner was in an even more powerful political position with direct influence over all government agencies, including the FDA, the FAA, and your own DOD. Through his own past employment and his wife’s present employment with NutraSweet’s law firm, it would seem that NutraSweet had a pipeline directly to the top. It should be noted that without the 1977 direct intervention of Samuel Skinner (who was then U.S. Attorney for the Justice Department’s Chicago office) and his associates, a grand jury would most certainly have indicted Searle/NutraSweet personnel for fraud and criminal behavior in concealing the deadly effects of the drug Aspartame from the FDA. The drug would never have been approved for use as a food additive and I would not now be writing this. I am continually appalled by the apparent indifference and inaction by various pilot-oriented organizations … FAA, AOPA, ALPA, and others … to the in-flight hazard posed by pilot’s ingestion of diet drinks or other drinks laced with Aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal). In the Navy Physiology article, for example, they state: … ‘Aspartame can increase the frequency of seizures … (susceptibility) to flicker vertigo or to flicker-induced epileptic activity. It means that ALL pilots are potential victims of sudden memory loss, dizziness during instrument flight (i.e. vertigo), and gradual loss of vision.’This certainly is a direct safety-of-flight item and should be dealt with as such. Instead, the Navy … ‘ offers a heads up to a potential problem.’ Let me ask you a question. If you became aware of a component of every Air Force aircraft which was subject to sudden, catastrophic in-flight failure, would you simply write an innocuous ‘heads up to pilots’ at the end of an obscure article in your magazine? Of course not! You would take immediate emergency action to ground all aircraft until the safety-of-flight item was removed. Aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal) is that safety-of-flight item! I do not expect to see Aspartame banned from the marketplace at this time; that is an unrealistic expectation. My immediate, personal goal, however is to have all pilots informed of the potential safety-of-flight hazard posed by Aspartame. At least, they could then make an informed decision whether they wished to risk their lives and careers by playing airborne Russian roulette with Aspartame-laced products. Of course, a more appropriate question may be asked: ‘Should pilots even have this right, when other people’s lives are at stake?”
Aspartame was discovered as a drug in the 60s (first approved in 1974 then rescinded because of the brain tumor issue — then approved again, over the objections of many scientists, in 1981) and is composed of two synthetic amino acids, Phenylalanine, Aspartic Acid and Methanol (10% wood alcohol). At temperatures exceeding 85 degrees F (body temperature is 98.6) the substance breaks down further into Formaldehyde, Formic Acid, and Diketopiperazine (a brain tumor agent). Aspartame complaints make up 80% of all complaints volunteered to the FDA. Aspartame is often the unidentified environmental trigger for: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Alzheimers, Lyme Disease, Post Polio Syndrome, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Epilepsy, Anxiety/Phobia Disorders, Manic Depression, Graves’ Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Heart Disease, Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome and others. Many Doctors have reported drastic improvement or disappearance of symptoms after removing Aspartame from the patients’ diet. On rechallenge, the symptoms tend to return. Symptoms reported to the FDA include: headache, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, numbness, blurred vision, blindness, memory loss, suicidal depression, personality and behavior changes, hyperactivity, gastrointestinal disorders, seizures, skin lesions, muscle cramping and joint pain, fatigue, heart attack symptoms, hearing loss and tinnitus, pulmonary and cerebral edemas, shock and death.
The FDA continues to ignore this imminent danger to the American public, choosing instead to call moratoriums on things having no absolute proof of danger, no emperical data, no double blind studies showing harm such as Dow’s breast implants and L-Tryptophan. They even allow the newest Monsanto fiasco, Bovine Growth Hormone to be injected into our previously safe milk supply. Registered Dietitians have been handed $100,000 to set up a hotline to tell callers how great BST is for their families. Monsanto is suing small dairies who wish to state on the label that their product is BST-free. Judge Clarence Thomas, a former Monsanto attorney may have a difficult job remaining absolutely neutral if Monsanto (his former employer) is brought before the Supreme Court. If you want to know more about the underhanded dealings of the makers of Aspartame and BST, rent the movie “I Love Trouble” starring Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte. It’s all about a fictional chemical company [makers of an artificial sweetener and a bovine growth hormone] whose employees attempt to kill people who get too close to discovery of their darkest secrets.
Ironically a major soft drink manufacturer made a conscious effort to target pilots for sales of their Aspartame sweetened product as they feature two pilots [diet drinks in their hands] flying a chopper in their commercials on TV. Their management was notified fully of the problems associated with aspartame ingestion on the part of pilots and others in the spring of 1991. At that time we were told they were switching to another sweetener in six months. What happened? We may never know. Diet Pepsi is now expiration dating their product in what we can only assume is a vain attempt to spare some customers the agonies of possible brain tumors from the breakdown product, Diketopiperazine (DKP) which kept Aspartame off the market for many years. Because military participants in the Gulf War were rehydrating with Diet Drinks furnished free by the soft drink companies, it is likely that Desert Storm Syndrome may simply be serious reactions to Aspartame. In desert heat the breakdown products reach toxic proportions much more quickly … leaving a virtual witches brew in place of the original chemical sweetener.
By the way, FDA Director, David Kessler told a Time magazine reporter that he starts every day with a diet drink.
George E. Leighton is a pilot and noise control consultant based in Orange, CA., and an FAA certified ATP flight instructor.
COVER STORY IN EXTRAORDINARY SCIENCE – July, 1995
(Author, Mary Nash Stoddard presented research findings at Tesla Conference, July ‘95, Colorado Springs CO before several hundred attendees. Lecture available on video by contacting ACSN 1-800-969-6050)
This article was written based partially on the evidence presented in these studies/medical and scientific texts:
1. National Cancer Institute Cancer Statistics Review 1973-87. Bethesda, N111 Pub. No. 89-2789
2. Roberts, H.J.; Does Aspartame Cause Human Brain Cancer?. Journal of Advancements in Medicine. Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1991
3. W.C. Monte, Aspartame: Methanol and the Public Health. Journal of Applied Nutrition, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1984.
4. P.J. Shaw, Excitatory amino acid receptors, excitotoxicity, and the human nervous system. Current Opinion in Neurology and Neurosurgery 1993, 6:414-422 UK
5. T.J. Maher and R.J. Wurtman, Possible Neurologic Effects of Aspartame, a Widely Used Food Additive. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vo. 75, p. 53-57, 1987.
6. M.E. Drake, Panic Attacks and Excessive Aspartame Ingestion. p. 631 The Lancet, Sept. 13, 1986
7. Congressional Record, Senate. Saccharin Study and Labeling Act Amendments of 1985. May 7,m 1985, p. S5489-5516
8. Congressional Record Senate. Aspartame Safety Act of 1985. August 1, 1985, p. S10820-10847
9. Ishu, II: Incidence of brain tumors in rats fed aspartame. Toxicol Letters 1981, 7:433-437.
10. R.G. Walton, Seizure and Mania after high intake of aspartame. Psychomatics, 1986; 27:218-220
11. R.J. Wurtman, E.R.Walker, Dietary Phenylalanine and Brain Function, MIT Press May, 1988.
12. D. Remington, B. Higa, The Bitter truth About Artificial Sweeteners. Vitality House Press, 1987
13. H.J. Roberts, Aspartame, NutraSweet. Is It Safe? The Charles Press, December 1989.
14. B.A. Mullarkey, Bittersweet Aspartame, A Diet Delusion. NutriVoice, Inc. ISBN 0-944366–00-7 1992. 65 pgs.
15. Excitotoxins … The Taste That Kills – Russell L. Blaylock, M.D. Health Press, Santa Fe, N.M. 1994 – ISBN 0-929173-14-7 – $29.95