PANNA: Airline Passengers Are Sprayed for Bugs


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Airline Passengers Are Sprayed for Bugs
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 abnormalities.

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, (

Sources: Danger in the Air, Karen Winegar, Mother Jones Magazine, July/August 1998,,
Association of Flight Attendants,,

Contact: PANNA

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