Airline Passengers Are Sprayed
P A N U P S - Pesticide Action Network Updates Service
March 17, 2003
An airline flight to the tropics may involve greater health
risks than a dose of airline food--pesticides are routinely sprayed in aircraft
cabins by U.S. airlines sometimes over the heads of passengers during flight.
"Disinsection" is the industry term for this practice, which continues
despite clear evidence of risk to passengers and crew. People more vulnerable to
the effects of pesticides, such as infants, pregnant woman or asthmatics are
informed, if at all, only just prior to spraying. Airline flight attendants
unions argue that chemical spraying is unnecessary because mechanical methods
could be applied instead.
No U.S. agency requires pesticide use on planes. The US
Department of Transportation website lists the countries that require in-flight
spraying, and those that will accept the "residual" treatment as an
alternative. Six countries currently require pesticide spraying on all inbound
flights: Grenada, India, Kiribati, Madagascar, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay.
The application method varies by country and airline. Typically, a pressurized
spray containing 2% phenothrin is sprayed over the passengers' heads during the
flight (also called "top-of-descent") or upon arrival, but while the
doors are closed. Alternatively, cabin crew may spray the occupied cabin prior
to departure after the doors have been closed ("blocks away"). A
member of the crew will announce the procedure shortly before they spray.
Another six countries: Australia, Barbados, Fiji, Jamaica, New
Zealand and Panama require the use of residual pesticides. In this case
applicators board the aircraft and spray every surface in the cabin with a
solution that contains 2% permethrin. This process takes place shortly before
crew and passengers board, without their knowledge. Babies and children are said
to be more sensitive to the effects of permethrin. Once an aircraft has been
residually treated, foreign quarantine officials will allow it to land without
additional pesticide treatment for the next 56 days.
Passengers flying on US domestic flights may find themselves on
an airliner that has recently been sprayed. United Airlines, for example, treats
all of its 747-400 aircraft in Hong Kong. These aircraft are not restricted to
the South Pacific routes; they are simply scheduled to fly to Australia or New
Zealand during the next 56 days, but in the meantime, can be flown on both
international and domestic routes.
The International Civil Aviation Organization reports that most
airlines use permethrin and pyrethroid, both are suspected endocrine disruptors,
and permethrin may be a carcinogen. The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to
Pesticides (NCAP) points out that pesticides cause even greater harm on
airplanes, where up to 50% of the air in the cabins is recycled.
"Pesticides break down slowly in the enclosed, poorly ventilated
aircraft," says a NCAP spokesperson.
The airlines are not required to inform passengers at ticket
purchase of flight sprays, and there is also no control over how much pesticide
is applied on the aircraft. The Association of Flight Attendants reported in
2001 that one airline used 50-60% more pesticide than the maximum recommended by
the World Health Organization. Between 2000 and 2001, one cabin crew union
received complaints of pesticide-related illness on more than 200 flights. Many
complaints cite damp surfaces and pesticide odors in crew rest compartments.
Crews and passengers have reported sinus problems, swollen and itchy eyes,
cough, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, skin rashes/hives that vary in
intensity, severe headaches and fatigue, and heightened sensitivity to other
chemicals. Some crew members have medical documentation of reactions consistent
with nerve gas exposure, such as blood, optic nerve, and nervous system
Alternative methods to control insects on aircraft are already
in use. Since the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has used
curtains made of overlapping strips of plastic to successfully keep Japanese
Beetles off aircraft destined for the western states during the summer.
Chemically treated mosquito netting and blowers in jetways may also be used as
alternatives. A variety of mechanical means should be tested.
The Association of Flight Attendants suggests that passengers
contact the airline to find out if pesticides will be sprayed on their flight,
or if they will be boarding a "residually sprayed" craft. The U.S.
Department of Transportation website also lists countries that require spray at http://ostpxweb.dot.gov/policy/safety/disin.htm.
PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing
resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage
by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North
America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance
sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.
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