PESTICIDE ACTION NETWORK NORTH AMERICA UPDATES SERVICE
May 6, 1994
In January 1994, U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico
F. Pena announced that the Clinton Administration was
considering a series of measures to discourage countries from
spraying pesticides in passenger cabins on international
jetliners, a procedure known as disinsection. Pena stated
that the first step would be to change current procedures and
require U.S. airlines to announce sprayings in advance to
passengers. Theoretically, these advance announcements could
result in decreased tourist traffic by travelers opposed to
the spraying and contribute to a halt of this procedure. In
a letter to more than twenty government transportation
officials around the world, Pena cited health dangers created
by the spraying, including long-term and immediate allergic
reactions of passengers as grounds for discontinuing the
According to the U.S. Air Transport Association, the
following countries may require cabin spraying before
arrival: Antigua, Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Belize,
Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador,
Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Northern
Marianas, Panama, Peru, St. Lucia, St. Martin, and Venezuela.
Guam, a U.S. territory, also requires aircraft disinsection.
A U.S. Department of Transportation survey estimated that
during the twelve months ending in September 1993, almost
15.2 million passengers flew on major U.S. airlines to the
Caribbean, Central America, and South America and were
sprayed in flight or on the ground after landing, exposing
millions of unsuspecting travelers to pesticides.
Some countries require insect quarantine for all
transcontinental and transoceanic airlines to prevent insect-
spread epidemics such as malaria, dengue fever, and
encephalitis, as well as to prevent entry of pests that may
pose an agricultural threat to that country. One common
method of disinsection is for flight attendants to walk the
length of passenger compartments applying insecticides, often
a premeasured dose of "Airosol Aircraft Insecticide" from
hand-held aerosol cans.
The active ingredient of "Airosol Aircraft Insecticide,"
is d-phenothrin (trade name: Sumithrin), a synthetic
derivative of an insecticide made from the flowers of a
Chrysanthemum species, which is also sold commercially as the
broad-spectrum insecticide Black Knight Roach Killer. Despite
its rapid breakdown, it has been known to cause problems for
people with allergies, chemical sensitivities, asthma and
other respiratory problems. Flight attendants and passengers
have complained the spraying has caused headaches, nausea,
fatigue, seizures and in extreme cases, memory loss,
reduction in cognitive skills or depressed immune systems.
The Airosol Aircraft Insecticide label describes the
insecticide as a "hazard to humans and domestic animals" that
can be harmful if absorbed through the skin, and warns
against breathing its vapors or having it come into contact
with skin or eyes.
Aircraft disinsection has been carried out since 1949
under the recommendations of two World Health Organization
Expert Committees (Insecticides and Vector Biology &
Control). Though the U.S. officially ended this practice in
1979 due to health concerns and questionable effectiveness,
the Department of Agriculture occasionally requires some
airlines to spray pesticides in aircraft used in domestic
flights to prevent the spread of Japanese beetles. However,
in these cases disinsection is done prior to the occupancy of
the crew and passengers.
In 1983, U.S. Assistant Surgeon General, Dr. Donald R.
Hopkins, wrote a memo about the U.S. Center for Disease
Control's position on insect disinsection noting that
insecticide spraying in aircraft "has never been shown to be
highly effective in disease control or in species
containment" and that the nation "cannot support the use of
insecticides in aircraft areas with passengers present.
Pesticides registered for such use should not be inhaled."
More than ten years later, aircraft disinsection still occurs
with few efforts to establish international regulations to
govern this practice.
The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
in Eugene, Oregon recommends that passengers take the
following precautions to reduce the likelihood of pesticide
exposure due to aircraft disinsection:
--Ask your travel agent or airline whether the flight will be
sprayed. Note that passengers are sometimes given inaccurate
information as many airline employees are unaware of the
--Ask for a written statement that the plane will not be
--Ask for a written agreement that you will be able to
disembark prior to the spraying. A letter from your doctor
may strengthen your request. However, even such written
agreements are not always honored in practice.
--Let on-board personnel know of your need to deplane prior
--If you have respiratory ailments, you should avoid flights
designated for disinsection; if you must go, use a respirator
mask that filters particles.
Write to the following government agencies and urge them
to require that ticket agents must warn travelers prior to
ticket purchase that they may be sprayed with a pesticide:
--Federal Aviation Administration, Community and Consumer
Liaison Division, FAA (APA-200), USDOT, Washington, D.C.
20591, USA; phone 800-424-9393.
--U.S. Department of Transportation, Consumer Affairs
Division, Room 10405, Office of Community and Consumer
Affairs, USDOT, 400 7th Ave., Washington, D.C. 20590, USA.
Sources: Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 67(5):
543-547, 1989; Buzzworm's Earth Journal, 38-43, 73, Nov/Dec
1993; New York Times, Jan. 17, 1994; Northwest Coalition for
Alternatives for Pesticides, Pesticide Action Alert, March
1994; San Francisco Examiner, April 17, 1994; Vet. Parasitol.
18:235-239, 1985; Dr. Julius Kleiner, A Guide to Protect
Passengers from Aircraft Disinsection (not published,
Contacts: Pesticide Action Network North American Regional
Center, see PANUPS footer. Northwest Coalition for
Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP), Box 1393, Eugene, OR
97440; phone (503) 344-5044; fax (503) 343-3790; email
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