Traveling With Wings: The Price of Pest-Free Flying

You never see a mouse or even a mosquito on an airplane. But the pesticides used to control them bring their own concerns.
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Editor's note: This is the first of two articles on the use of pesticides in aircraft cabins.

Imagine boarding a flight where the aisles are dotted with mousetraps, where fly swatters protrude from seatback pouches and where flight attendants demonstrate how to properly don a mosquito net.

It's hard to imagine because if there's one thing you can say about air travel, it's pest free. But this environment does not come free of controversy. On the contrary, pesticide spraying on aircraft, called disinsection, is a balled-up mess of litigation, legislation, sanitation, convoluted international law, bureaucracy and possible health hazards.

In the first survey of its kind, conducted on April 3 and 4,

TheStreet.com

asked, "Are you aware of pesticide spraying in some aircraft cabins?" Seventy-one percent of respondents said no. Asked whether they would be concerned to learn that pesticides were sometimes used, nearly three-quarters of those who responded said yes. Another 11 percent said maybe.

Just four or five years ago, a flight to the tropics or the South Pacific meant travelers themselves were likely to receive a good dousing of bug killer while still strapped in their seats.

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reader Stacy Goff of Colorado recalls a trip in the early 1990s to New Zealand and Australia when uniformed workers on one flight began emptying mysterious aerosol canisters. "Someone asked what were they doing and they said spraying. Someone asked, 'Is it DDT?' and they wouldn't answer," Goff says

Eager to protect populations and agriculture from disease-carrying insects, several countries, including Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Mexico, New Zealand and St. Lucia, mandated that incoming flights be sprayed while passengers were onboard.

Prompted by citizens' complaints, the U.S.

Department of Transportation

flexed its muscles and, within the last five years, some 20 countries have stopped spraying aircraft with passengers onboard. Today the whittled-down list of countries that still spray pesticides stands at six, with India as the largest and most prominent one. The U.S. had dropped its disinsection requirements on incoming flights in 1979, when the

Centers for Disease Control

said such practices were unnecessary and unhealthy.

Common symptoms associated with problematic pesticide exposure include aching joints, nausea and loss of motor coordination, according to the

Washington State University

Cooperative Extension. Studies over the last decade reported in medical journals claim that exposure to pesticides in general may increase risk for some cancers.

Pleased with its results, the DOT in the last year laid to rest its campaign to end aerosol spraying of planes and people, says department spokesman Bill Mosley. But critics complain that alternative methods -- spraying empty cabins with residual pesticides that last longer (six to eight weeks) -- are still required for landing in five countries, including New Zealand and Australia, and are at least as dangerous.

Airlines clearly are in a tough spot -- because if they don't comply, foreign authorities can yank landing privileges.

At least one antipesticide activist, though, has anything but sympathy for the airlines -- and says residual methods are "more sinister" than the more-obvious aerosol spraying. The residual chemicals linger longer and fliers are unaware the cabins have been treated, says Becky Riley, a spokeswoman for the Oregon-based

Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She says insecticides break down slowly in indoor environments with no rain or sunlight. She also points to medical studies that show insecticides are absorbed into upholstery and carpeting and then re-released into the air. Given a plane's tight quarters and highly recycled air, people with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma and compromised immune systems -- and small children whose immune systems are still developing -- are at particular risk, she said.

Reactions to pesticide exposure often mirror flu symptoms, so it would be nearly impossible to prove that today's ailments were caused by yesterday's plane trip. But for hard evidence of the health hazards, Riley says listen to complaints from flight attendants. Some of these most frequent of frequent fliers are complaining -- in court.

Tomorrow: Flight Attendants Suing Pesticide Makers

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.