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 Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO

Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO 


   Representing 50,000 Flight Attendants at 26 Airlines

AFA Safety and Health Pesticides


 Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO - Last updated August 2002 

The governments of Australia, New Zealand, India, and Uruguay (among others) require that incoming aircraft be treated with specific pesticides that are not approved for use in the passenger cabin in the United States.  

How are the aircraft treated? 

On flights from Miami to Montevideo, Uruguay for example, in-flight pesticide application is required. Typically, the flight attendants must walk down the aisles and spray over the passengers' heads after announcing that the spray is non-toxic. United requires that this announcement be made, despite an internal company document dated 1987 that acknowledges health effects associated with exposure to the in-flight sprays, as well as their 2001 admission that the non-toxic claim "is not entirely true."  

For 747-400 aircraft bound for Australia and New Zealand, for example, the pesticide spray is usually applied on the ground in Hong Kong before flight attendants, pilots, and passengers board, with a spray that is chemically active for eight weeks. United transferred their 747-400 residual spraying operation from Sydney to Hong Kong during the first half of 2002, apparently because the scheduled ground time is longer, allowing more time for the spray to dry. In late May 2002, United also started spraying their 777XP aircraft in Taipei in preparation to route them to Auckland. In both cases, this pre-boarding application is called "residual treatment." The active pesticide ingredient in the "residual spray" is supposed to be effective for 56 days, but if the treated aircraft does not return to Australia or New Zealand within this 56 day window, then the aircraft cabin must be sprayed in-flight or upon arrival. Sometimes the flight attendants must release the contents of pressurized cans over peoples' heads; other times, the plane lands and agriculture agents come on board and spray before people are allowed off.   

What is in the sprays? 

According to laws in Australia and New Zealand, the residual spray must contain 2% permethrin and the in-flight spray must contain 2% phenothrin. Both of these chemicals belong to a group of pesticides called "pyrethroids." A March 2001 survey conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) indicates that other countries (including Uruguay) require the same or similar active ingredients. Both the residual and in-flight sprays also contain solvents - chemicals that the pesticides are dissolved in. The solvents include methylene chloride and xylene and other benzene-based chemicals. The in-flight sprays can also contain chlorofluorocarbons. 

In October 2000, United reported that they switched over to a "low odor" residual spray that is "less irritating" and "smells like freshly-shampooed carpet".  However, chemically, the "old" and new" sprays are similar. Your nose is less likely to confirm its presence, but the low odor spray is not any less toxic, and it can still be inhaled or absorbed through the skin or the stomach.

Are the sprays safe? 

In November 2000, United issued a "Hot News Disinsection Update" to some of their flight attendants in which they described a report that concluded that the sprays are "safe". In fact, the report did not comment on the safety of the sprays, only the contents. The safety depends not only on the contents of the spray, but on the amount that is absorbed, whether through the lungs, skin, or stomach. We have learned that some of the ingredients have been labeled as "sensitizers" meaning that exposure can initiate a response from your immune system. Some people can have serious reactions even when exposed to low concentrations.

As of 1996, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not approve either permethrin or phenothrin for application in the passenger cabin because the chemical manufacturers did not respond to EPA's request for data to support their claims that it was "safe" to apply the sprays over peoples' heads in the aircraft environment. It is true that the EPA has approved permethrin for some non-aircraft uses, such as lice shampoo, in the US. However, the potential for exposure to permethrin from using lice shampoo once every few years is quite different from the potential exposure while working a 15 hour shift on an aircraft that has been sprayed and not vented properly.  

According to the medical literature, some of the typical symptoms associated with exposure to permethrin and phenothrin include tingling, burning, and numbness in the surface of the skin, as well as damage to eyes and neurological effects. The World Health Organization has recognized permethrin as an irritant (both to eyes and skin), and an adverse effect on both the reproductive system and the immune system have been suggested in the medical literature. Finally, there is some concern that permethrin and phenothrin may produce skin and respiratory allergies. Some of the other ingredients in these sprays have also been associated with a variety of health effects, and the effects of exposure to the mixture of pesticide ingredients and solvents in the aircraft environment has never been formally assessed.  

But doesn't the World Health Organization claim that these sprays are safe? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) does approve these pesticides for use in the passenger cabin and cockpit because they are effective at killing bugs that can carry disease or damage crops. In contrast, over the past 20 years, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Transportation have all spoken out against the practice of in-flight disinsection. For more information on the history of aircraft disinsection. According to the WHO, aircraft disinsection must be carried out in such a way that is "not injurious to the health of passengers and crew." However, the reports of ill health from crewmembers and passengers on 249 flights in a single year suggest that this requirement is far from being met. The majority of the reports reference conditions and symptoms (1) during and after in-flight spraying or (2) during and after one of the two flight legs that followed residual treatment of the cabin and cockpit. Many of the crewmember complaints (both flight attendants and pilots) cited particularly poor conditions (including damp surfaces and a distinct odor of pesticides) in the crew bunkrooms, those dark, poorly ventilated quarters where crewmembers are assigned to take scheduled rest breaks during especially long flights. 

Ill health attributed to pesticides has also been reported on other major US airlines. Related lawsuits have been filed in the past against at least one of these, as well as against an Australian airline. The union that represents those Canadian cabin crew that are required to perform the in-flight spraying on particular trips has collected similar illness reports from its members and has been petitioning for protective equipment since early 2001[1]. Similarly, the November 2000 issue of Aviation Health Institute (a UK publication) reported that a cabin crew exposed to routine in-flight spraying on a British airline had also requested protective masks and gloves, and that some passengers had been affected. 

Is it necessary to spray? The WHO only considers it necessary to spray aircraft arriving from or via countries where there is a risk of importing tropical disease. Surprisingly, it is true that cases of some tropical diseases have been identified in California, for example. But it is also true that, while there are documented cases of importing the bugs that carry such disease via the cargo hold of ships docking in CA, as well as in infected migrant workers that get bitten by uninfected CA mosquitoes, thereby infecting the local mosquitoes that can then pass it on, there are no documented cases of such bugs being imported from California in the passenger cabin and cockpit. So, while the cargo hold must clearly be treated, the justification for spraying the passenger cabin and cockpit is less clear. However, even if treatment is necessary, it must be carried out in a way that, as per the WHO requirement, "is not injurious to the health of passengers and crew."   

Aside from not spraying in the first place, how can exposure to these chemicals be kept to a minimum? 

In mid-September 2000, United Airlines put a new policy into place – a series of protections that they committed to execute after the residual spray has been applied. In short, after the aircraft has been vented, the customer service agents and the cleaning staff must now independently confirm that the cabin interiors are dry and odor-free before flight attendants are expected to board the aircraft in Sydney. Yet, as of this writing (August 2002), AFA continues to receive reports of adverse health effects attributed to exposure to these pesticides, particularly on recently treated flights, whether or not this standard is met. It is critical that flight attendants assigned to these flights ensure that the cabin interiors, including the bunk area, are dry and odor free before departure. Also, ask for the pesticide survey at your local union office. If surfaces are not dry and odor free when you board, you need to inform Station Operations immediately that the aircraft needs to be vented and dried. If you area United flight attendant, you can cite the United policy on page 1740 of your handbook and point out that it has not been met, (The reporting procedure is described below.)  

Exposure to the in-flight spray is more difficult to control because flight attendants are often held responsible for applying the spray. However, in a November 2001 letter to United CEO John Creighton, AFA asked that (1) United work towards the elimination of spraying in an occupied cabin; and (2) in the meantime, that passenger and crewmembers be given advance notice of the spraying and an opportunity to deplane before the spraying commences. So far, United has not committed to any changes. 

What’s next? 

Our ultimate goal is to get rid of these spraying requirements. In some cases, it may simply be unnecessary to spray. In other cases, the sprays must be replaced with non-chemical products and procedures that do not harm the health of aircraft occupants. To this end, we believe that it is necessary to open communications with representatives from the countries in question. One major success story is that of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and their Japanese Beetle Program. Up until the late 1970s, the USDA required that aircraft bound for the western states from either the east coast or mid-west be dusted with a mixture of DDT and another pesticide called Sevin.  For approximately 20 years now, the USDA instead requires that the airlines hang heavy clear plastic curtains with overlapping strips over any open doors during Japanese Beetle season (the summer months) in states where Japanese Beetles are found on aircraft if those aircraft are bound for the western states that are free of the beetles. They have reported great success with this non-chemical and low-tech approach, and hardly ever need to apply pesticides to the aircraft to control these beetles. We encourage research that will investigate whether a similar product could be used to satisfy foreign quarantine rules. It is important to assess non-chemical means and compare the effectiveness to the chemical spraying.  

In the meantime, we would strongly support a regulation or law that would require a minimum ventilation period after the residual spray has been applied that would ensure that the cabin is truly dry and odor free. As a reference, the US Navy requires that its submarines be ventilated and unoccupied for a minimum of 24 hours after being treated with a solution that is very similar to the in-flight aircraft pesticides. We have also asked United to spray the crew bunk mattresses off the aircraft and leave them to properly dry (for a few days) until expecting flight attendants to sleep on them. To date, this request has been turned down. AFA continues to raise awareness of the spraying requirements and ingredients, collecting incident reports, and distributing information to those affected. We continue to raise the issue with United, the EPA, CDC, DOT, USDA, Congress, and advocacy groups.  

The newly elected MEC has recognized this issue as a priority. AFA participation in a study of pesticides and health was unanimously approved in July 2002. Proposed future actions include stepping up pressure on the International Civil Aviation Organization to actually enforce the protective standards it has published on aircraft disinsection. (Right now, ICAO standards are more or less ignored.) We also recognize that we need to turn up the volume to get the attention of the World Health Organization and challenge their assertion that the sprays are "safe", given that they have received hundreds of reports to the contrary. If you have had problems with the sprays, it is important to let the WHO and ICAO know.

 In the meantime… 

If you have problems with the sprays, it is important that you file a report with the company as soon as you arrive in the US. You need to keep a copy of the report for yourself and send one to your local AFA office. It would be very helpful if members could also fill out an AFA reporting form (available now at the United LAX, SFO, HKG, TPE, ORD, NRT, and MIA bases, and at and send it to your local office. Passengers and pilots are also welcome to submit reports. AFA staff at the international office are in touch with your local union representatives, but if you choose to, you can also send a copy of your report and AFA form to them (fax: 202-712-9793, mail: AFA-ASHD, 1275 K Street NW, #500, Washington, DC 20005).

[1] Ongoing personal correspondence with key union safety and health representative, 2000 – present.

Take a minute to sign the AFA petition to
speak out against pesticides on planes!


Sign the AFA petition to speak out against pesticides on planes and show your support for a non-chemical alternative!  Tell the airlines and the Department Of Transportation that passengers and crew do not want to be sprayed with pesticides during a flight, and that passengers would choose to fly with an airline that does not spray over one that does. Click on the link above and then click on "sign petition." If you don't want to sign your name online, just print it in block letters. For more information, visit the AFA pesticides page.

Related Links:

 Occupational Illness Among Flight Attendants Due to Aircraft Disinsection

Jet Blowers May Stop Bugs From Boarding

Flight attendants oppose on-board insecticides


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