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Hotline gets warnings about pilots and aspartame
Jennifer Tryon, CTV Food Specialist

Over the past eight years, sporadic warnings from consumer groups have appeared in Canadian aviation magazines, suggesting airline pilots call a hotline. There, they can confidentially report problems they've been having from eating or drinking the artificial sweetener aspartame.

"We've had hundreds and maybe thousands of calls that are pilot-related," said Mary Nash Stoddard, who has answered the Aspartame Pilots Hotline for more than a decade from her home in Dallas, Texas.

Stoddard is the founder of the Aspartame Consumers Safety Network, a group she founded when her daughter had a seizure after ingesting aspartame.

CTV News discovered the hotline number in a Health Canada Access to Information request. It was buried in a document submitted to Health Canada in 1995, warning health officials about the risks pilots may be under by consuming aspartame. The document warned of more than 90 symptoms that could be attributed to aspartame. More disturbingly, it also warned that pilots could suffer grand mal seizures in the cockpit after consuming the artificial sweetener.

In a letter obtained by CTV News, one Transport Canada doctor blames aspartame for a former Air Canada pilot’s grand mal seizure. The doctor fought his own department to have the pilot's licence reinstated. The doctor states: "Since his grounding, [the pilot] has eliminated foods containing aspartame... He has not experienced any further episodes of vision disturbances..."

One former Air Canada pilot told CTV News he saw memos on a bulletin board suggesting pilots not consume diet drinks. There was no scientific proof attached, just a warning.

So why aspartame and why pilots?

Some believe it's a coincidence. But others, such as Stoddard, say the amino acids that make up the sweetener, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, cause a reaction in the brain at high altitudes. The reaction can lead to hypoxia, also called "the bends," and sometimes seizure.

Aspartame is made up of two amino acids that form methanol ester, which becomes the substance known as Nutrasweet or Equal. It's 180 times sweeter than sugar and safe for diabetics. Repeated studies have found it to be safe.

Pilots are typically health-conscious and often choose to drink diet drinks to stay hydrated in the air and keep their weight down. Many say the reports on aspartame have been anecdotal in nature. The hundreds who call Stoddard's hotline every year are considered to be misdiagnosing themselves or part of a radical online movement to ban aspartame.

But Hanes Dunn, a former U.S. Air Force and Continental Airlines pilot, now living in Texas City, Texas, believes aspartame cost him his career. In 1990, he suffered a grand mal seizure which resulted in automatic termination of his flying status. Dunn says he's not epileptic and only has seizures when he ingests foods containing the sweetener.

"I've never had an abnormal EEG [brain scan]," says Dunn who, until he started using diet drinks to lose weight, boasted a clean bill of health. "I can't prove it one way or another. But all I know is that all my problems started once I started using diet drinks that were sweetened with aspartame."

Dunn says he believes that, ironically, the diet drinks he drank to keep his weight down to ensure he didn't lose his pilot's licence ended up costing him his licence.

"What I feel like I did was, basically, I committed occupational suicide," Dunn says.

Dunn says being grounded cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, and contributed to his divorce. He says he now refuses to ingest aspartame of any kind and often has to carefully read labels on some foods and drink to ensure it's not in them.

Dunn is just one pilot CTV News found who had suffered seizures and attributed them to aspartame use. Two former Air Canada pilots wouldn't talk on the record. One said it was because he was still flying and didn't want to jeopardize his licence. But Dunn wanted to talk about the problems he's had with the sweetener.

Dunn took part in a clinical test to gauge his reaction to aspartame. He ingested 12 cans of diet cola and was seizure-free. However, he did break out in a rash.

Health Canada is firm in its decision that aspartame is safe in average amounts. Some studies show it would take 16 cans of diet cola for aspartame to become harmful.

John Salminen, Health Canada chief of the Chemical Health Hazards Division, said: "We don't rule out the possibility that there are individuals who cannot tolerate aspartame, I mean that is a possibility."