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Report highlights risk of pesticides used on aircraft

According to the new report 'Flyers Beware: Pesticide Use on International and Domestic Aircraft and Flights' there are many ways that passengers (and airline crew members) can be exposed to pesticides onboard aircraft. Becky Riley reports.

On flights to at least six countries (Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Madagascar, Kiribati, India, and Uruguay), passengers are directly sprayed with aerosol pesticides, while still strapped in their seats, before being allowed to disembark from the plane. A recent issue of the US Consumer Reports Travel Letter reports that Great Britain also requires spraying of arriving (occupied) flights originating in India.
   
According to one airline attendant, when aerosols are applied on occupied aircraft, passenger' clothing, skin and hair are covered with the pesticide.
   
On flights to many other countries, passengers are exposed, without their knowledge or consent, to pesticides sprayed prior to passenger boarding, but intended to leave long-lasting insect-killing residues in the passenger cabin. Countries that require such spraying include Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, Panama, Fiji and Guam. Use of sprays on these international flights is required by the destination countries, and therefore must be done by all airlines flying to those countries.
   
Passengers may be exposed to pesticide sprays even on flights to destination countries that do not require that planes be sprayed. This is because planes treated with long-lasting residual insecticides to meet the requirements of one country may also be used on flights to other countries.
   
Finally, passengers on flights within the US or other countries may also be exposed to residues of insecticides sprayed on planes at the discretion of the airlines. Some airlines report making monthly pesticide applications as part of routine 'maintenance' of their planes, while other airlines refuse to disclose information about pesticide use practices. The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) report notes that many pesticide products, with a wide range of active ingredients, are registered in the US for use on aircraft, including in passenger cabins. A similar situation is likely to be true for other countries. There is nothing in current regulations to prohibit airlines from using such products in cabins immediately prior to passengers boarding.
   
It seems obvious that spraying pesticides, which are intentional poisons, directly onto people, is a hazardous practice. The US long ago dropped its requirement that incoming occupied aircraft be sprayed, citing health risks to passengers. The US Environmental Protection Agency's Director of Pesticide Registration, in a 1994 testimony before a US Congressional subcommittee, acknowledged that spraying of occupied passenger cabins with aerosol insecticides could create medical problems for people with allergies, chemical sensitivities, asthma, and other respiratory problems. NCAP's report cites examples of flight attendants and passengers who have complained that such spraying has caused headaches, nausea, fatigue, seizures and, in extreme cases, memory loss, a reduction in cognitive skills, and immune system depression. There has been one report of a passenger with emphysema who died of "acute exacerbation of chronic airways obstruction" after being sprayed on a flight to Australia.
   
NCAP's report points out that use of residual pesticides on aircraft before passengers board can also pose serious risks to human health. Even though passengers are not directly sprayed, they can be exposed to the long-lasting pesticide residues via dermal contact with upholstery, cabin surfaces, and carpets. Passengers may also be exposed to vapours or residues through re-circulated air, or to pesticides revol-atilizing from carpets or fabric seat coverings. NCAP notes that while pesticides may pose acute health hazards in any setting, exposures to pesticide residues on an aircraft are of special concern for several reasons. Once a flight begins, people are literally trapped and unable to leave should they begin to experience acute health problems related to the exposure. Aeroplane passenger cabins are already noted for their poor air quality due to a lack of adequate ventilation and restrictions on intake of fresh air during flights. Deliberately introducing intentional poisons into this enclosed and poorly ventilated environment creates additional and unnecessary health hazards.
   
What can passengers do to avoid exposure to pesticides on flights? Currently, passengers are not given advance notification of any of the above types of spraying. Furthermore, it is very difficult to find accurate information about the spraying requirements of other countries, or the discretionary spray practices of individual airlines. Disappointingly, the US Department of Transportation recently dropped a proposed regulation that would have required US and foreign airlines operating in the US to inform passengers who are booking flights if their aircraft was to be sprayed before landing.
   
To really avoid exposures, air travellers will have to protest in large numbers, mounting campaigns to pressure the various health, agricultural, aviation, and tourism agencies of countries that require spraying to change those requirements. Passengers will also have to mount similar campaigns to get airlines to halt their own discretionary use of pesticides. Boycotting flights to certain destinations or by certain airlines may ultimately be the most effective way to bring pressure - as long as passengers call the tourism bureaux of the countries and the airlines involved to tell them that they are doing so, and why. The upcoming Olympic Games may provide a golden opportunity to bring such pressure to bear on Australia. Under current requirements of the Australian government, tens of thousands of people - athletes and spectators alike - will be exposed to long-lasting residues of permethrin on flights into the country. Permethrin is a nerve-poisoning pesticide that can cause tremors and loss of co-ordination, among other harmful effects.
   
NCAP's report offers recommendations for actions that passengers can take to protest both the required and discretionary spraying practices on aircraft, including contacting airlines, government agencies, foreign embassies, and tourism bureaux. Specific contact information is provided for US agencies and airlines, though the same types of actions can equally well be taken by air travellers from other countries. The report also urges flyers to contact elected officials and government agencies to urge the implementation of requirements that airlines at least provide advance notification to passengers if sprays will be used on or before a flight.

NCAP's full report on airline spraying is available on their Web site

Becky Riley works for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), PO Box 1393, Eugene, OR 97440, US, Tel +1 541 344-5044, Fax +1 541 344-6923, briley@pesticide.org

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 43, March 1999, page 16]


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