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The Healthy Traveler

Insecticide Spraying on Airlines

March 12, 1995|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Julia Kendall was sitting by the window in row 23, awaiting descent into the Caribbean island of St. Martin, when an American Airlines flight attendant began spraying insecticide throughout the cabin.

"The flight attendant said it was harmless and nontoxic," recalled Kendall, who lives in San Rafael. Soon Kendall began feeling ill. "It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest," she said. By the time she disembarked, she was coughing and had difficulty breathing. Those symptoms were followed by a throbbing headache, chills and an elevated white blood cell count, which showed up in tests administered by her physician after her return to the United States five weeks later, she said.

Such reports of ill effects in conjunction with insecticide spraying on airlines--a practice known by the U.S. Department of Transportation as disinsection--prompted DOT to launch a campaign to urge other countries to put an end to spraying while passengers are on board.

"Passengers, for good reason, don't like insecticide sprayed while they're in the cabin," said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Transportation Department. "And there's no good reason to do it."

Last year, the Transportation Department wrote letters to countries that follow the practice--which is aimed at preventing the spread of disease-carrying, crop-damaging insects between countries--and asked them to stop. Experts here note that since insecticide spraying in airline cabins was discontinued in the United States in 1979, there have not been any outbreaks of insect-borne disease attributed to imported insects.

After the U.S. request, eight countries stopped spraying with passengers on board or have indicated plans to do so, according to the Transportation Department. But 17 countries still require spraying while passengers are on board and five require that empty cabins be sprayed. (See box.)

While no organization has the power, worldwide, to force airlines to stop insecticide spraying, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena wants passengers booking flights departing from the United States to be notified if spraying will occur when they are on board and has spearheaded a newly proposed regulation that could do just that. If accepted by DOT, the regulation would make notification mandatory when travelers purchase tickets. If asked, travel agents and airline personnel would also be required to name the insecticide. (This would apply only to the initial outbound leg of the journey.)

Although others may be in use internationally, two disinsection methods are currently approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N.-affiliated, multinational group devoted to aviation safety and standards. They include aerosol spraying with d-phenothrin, a chemical also found in Black Knight Roach Killer. Also approved is the insecticide permethrin, which is applied by spraying interior surfaces of the vacant cabin, usually every six weeks or so.

No U.S. studies have proven these two sprays dangerous to humans, according to a DOT spokesman, and Aerosol Co. Inc., the company that produces d-phenothrin, said that recent toxicology studies funded by the company conclude that their product is safe to be used in the presence of humans. Yet the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sees disinsection as "a potential risk," particularly for people with allergies or asthma, CDC spokesman Bob Howard said.

The federal campaign to stop spraying is applauded by the International Airline Passengers Assn., a Washington organization of frequent travelers. "We've been absolutely opposed to spraying of airline cabins when people are on board," spokesman David Stempler said.

Few travelers think to ask about insecticide spraying on board, as Julia Kendall well knows. When she booked her flight to St. Martin in 1992, she told airline personnel she can't sit in an aisle seat because of a chemical sensitivity that causes her to react adversely to the scent of flight attendants' cologne. But it didn't occur to her to ask about the possibility of insecticide spraying. "It never entered my mind," said Kendall, who has filed an $8.5-million lawsuit against the airline.

Although an American Airlines spokesman declined to comment on Kendall's lawsuit, he said the airline supports U.S. government efforts to eliminate cabin spraying.

Travelers who want to avoid or minimize exposure may want to follow this advice:

* "Find out first if spraying is going on," Stempler said. Before booking, ask if the cabin will be sprayed while passengers are present and which insecticide will be used. If airline reservation personnel and travel agents do not know, ask to speak to a supervisor or consult the airline's consumer services department.

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