Traveling With Wings: Flight Attendants Suing Pesticide Makers

Still, some fliers are thankful the pests are under control.
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Editor's note: This is the second of two articles on the use of pesticides in aircraft cabins.

Airlines' use of pesticides in aircraft cabins has been popping up in the news intermittently for years.

TheStreet.com

touched on the subject last

June. Last month, two national newspapers addressed the issue, focusing on

Department of Transportation

activity and litigation.

How concerned are fliers? Very, judging by the results of a

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reader poll conducted over the first weekend of this month. The poll found that 82% of the readers who responded said they had no knowledge of ever being on a plane where pesticides had been sprayed. But nearly half of the participants said they would change flight plans if they knew pesticides were going to be sprayed in the cabin of their aircraft.

There is also serious concern on the part of many whose business it is to fly.

About 400 flight attendants and a few pilots are suing makers and distributors of the airline aerosol and residual pesticides, citing product defects and liability. Defendants in the suit, filed in Superior Court of the State of California last March, include:

Airosol

of Kansas;

Sumitomo Chemical America

of New York;

McLaughlin Gormley King

of Minnesota; Glaxo Wellcome of North Carolina and its parent

Glaxo Wellcome

(GLX)

of England;

Burroughs Wellcome Foundation

of England;

Hoechst

(HOE)

and

Schering

of Germany; and Hoechst and Schering Agrevo of Australia.

McLaughlin Gormley King is vigorously fighting the lawsuit, said Chris Riley, the firm's general counsel and secretary. MGK's product is registered with the

Environmental Protection Agency

and approved and tested by the

World Health Organization

as the best formula for controlling such vector-borne diseases as malaria and dengue fever, he said. If flight attendants have a beef with foreign requirements, they should take it up with the DOT or the various destination countries, he said. "Our actions have been lawful and appropriate," Riley said. Other defendants in the suit could not be reached or declined to comment.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Linda Laurent of

Reich & Binstock

in Houston says her clients suffer numerous maladies ranging from runny noses, headaches and rashes while in flight to ongoing problems like chronic allergies and fatigue while on the ground -- all from exposure to pesticide toxins.

Aerosol pesticides used to disinsect international flights contain D-Phenothrin, a synthetic pyrethroid. Flight attendants were often given the task of administering the sprays, sometimes dispensing up to six cans throughout occupied cabins, then presenting the empties to foreign authorities upon landing. One side of the can gave instructions on how to spray the insecticide aboard aircraft with passengers present and the air ventilation system turned off, Laurent said. The other side of the can warned the product was a hazard to humans and domestic animals. Users were warned not to inhale the vapors or let it come in contact with skin, she said.

Laurent is also going after makers of the residual pesticide most commonly used on aircraft: Perigen, with its active ingredient permethrin. Perigen is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency for use only in cargo holds at 0.5% concentration. But Laurent claims aircraft cabins are being saturated with the insecticide at a 2% concentration during residual treatments overseas. "That's four times greater than what the U.S. would allow you to use in cargo," she said.

One of the 400 plaintiffs, a female flight attendant for 25 years, flew for a long while on European flights and then switched in August to the Australia/New Zealand route. She pinpoints that as the start of her poor health and blames the residual pesticides used inside the cabins. "Every single trip I was sick," said the woman, who asked that she not be identified by name. She says she suffered severe nausea, migraines, was hospitalized three times in Australia, and even once put in the cockpit bunk bed and given oxygen. Months later, her symptoms still linger. She now flies primarily domestic routes, which means a $500-a-month drop in income, and also steers clear of 747-400s, the planes used for the Australia/New Zealand trips.

Airlines, for obvious reasons, are not eager to discuss disinsection, yet they may have no choice if a new bill passes into law. Last month, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, Oregon) introduced the Aviation Consumer Right to Know Act, which addresses, among other things, insecticides. Kathie Eastman, a DeFazio spokeswoman, said the bill proposes that travelers be told when booking their flights whether there will be any onboard exposure to pesticides, including residual sprays, and that the products be named. "What we're doing is disclosure," she said.

While well-intentioned, the proposed bill could -- and very likely would -- create havoc not only for airlines and travel agents but also for fliers. Consider passengers with last-minute plane changes trying to ascertain what pesticides were used and when and whether the chemicals posed risks. It seems implausible.

In addition to disinsection required abroad, airlines also have planes' seams and crevices treated for bugs as part of routine maintenance in the U.S., said Doug Killian, spokesman for

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

. "Oh, it's great to say, 'Gee, we don't want the aircraft treated,'" Killian said, pointing out that rats, mice, cockroaches and other pests are attracted to planes. "It's a serious challenge to airlines," he said. "We'd get a lot of complaints if people started seeing bugs and rodents."

Joe Hopkins, a spokesman for

UAL's

(UAL) - Get Report

United Airlines

, half-laughed when he realized the proposed legislation could mean travelers would need to be informed of each and every domestic pesticide treatment, which he likened to household bug-spraying. "People with concerns," he said, "can contact United's medical team."

However implausible disclosure may be, people with multiple chemical sensitivity simply should not be dismissed as cranks.

The

Association of Flight Attendants

, a union of 44,000 flight attendants from 23 airlines, has long lobbied for full disclosure to passengers of the pest treatments performed aboard aircraft, says Chris Witkowski, AFA director of air safety and health. "The public has a right to know," he said.

Still, the

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poll showed that some fliers do not want minilessons on insecticides -- or even the

chance

that they will encounter a reviled bug.

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reader Mary Timm of Arizona, for one, wrote: "I've just looked at the survey results regarding pesticide usage, and all I can say is what a bunch of pansies! What with parents changing their kids' diapers right in the cabin (sometimes even in the next seat), people putting their snot rags in the pouches in front of them, and food spilling onto the floor, traveling today is already a health risk. At least with pesticide usage there won't be any roaches crawling over you as you're boxed in three to a seat."

Susan C. Schena is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer. She previously worked as an editor at the Albuquerque Tribune and as a reporter for the New Mexico Business Watch and the San Diego Business Journal.