Pesticides On Board * What You Need To Know
Association of Flight Attendants, AFL-CIO March 2001
The governments of Australia, New Zealand, and India (among others)require that incoming aircraft be treated with specific pesticides that are not approved for usein the passenger cabin in the United States.
In Australia, the pesticides are usually applied on the ground in Australia,before flight attendants and passengers board, with a spray that is chemically active for eightweeks. This is called "residual treatment." Sometimes, if the active chemical in the residualspray has "expired" before an aircraft makes it back to Australia for treatment, then the aircrafthas to be sprayed "in-flight" while flight attendants and passengers are still on board. TheIndian government will not accept residual treatment of the aircraft and in-flight spraying isstandard practice on flights arriving in India.
According to laws in Australia and New Zealand, the residual spray mustcontain 2% permethrin and the in-flight spray must contain 2% phenothrin. Both of thesechemicals belong to a group of pesticides called "pyrethroids."
Both the residual and in-flight sprays also contain solvents -- chemicalsthat the pesticides are dissolved in. The solvents include xylene and benzene-basedchemicals. The in-flight sprays also contain chlorofluorocarbons.
As of this writing (March 2001), United Airlines is applying a "low odor"residual spray, but keep in mind that the chemical content is similar to the "regular" residualsprays, except that the in the "low odor" spray, the solvents are less volatile, which means thatonce they have settled out of the air, they are less likely to re-enter the air, so people are lesslikely to smell them or inhale them. The "low odor" spray can still be absorbed through theskin, or through the stomach if a person eats food prepared on sticky galley counters.
The AFA does not yet have specific information on the contents of the in-flight sprays applied en route to India, either by United or American Trans Air. However, arecent survey conducted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) indicated thatIndia recommends permethrin, phenothrin, and peomithren.
None of the sprays have been cleared as "safe". The safety depends onthe contents of the spray, and on the amount that is absorbed, whether through the lungs,skin, or stomach. If members want a list of the chemicals in the sprays (at least the ones usedby United in Australia and New Zealand) to give their doctor, a copy is provided on the AFAweb site. You can also ask for a list at your local base or at the international office.
The World Health Organization approves these pesticides for "aircraftdisinsection" because they are effective at killing bugs that can carry disease or damagecrops. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not permit thesechemicals to be sprayed in aircraft in the US. For example, the EPA has said that it doubts thebenefit of spraying phenothrin in an occupied cabin exceeds the risks (EPA PesticideRegulation Notice 96-3, 1996). Also, the EPA is reviewing the toxicity of these pesticidesbecause of evidence that some of the ingredients can damage the brain development ofinfants and fetuses.
It is true that the EPA has approved permethrin for some non-aircraftuses, such as lice shampoo, in the US. However, the potential for exposure to permethrinfrom 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. Ifthe cabin interiors are dry and odor free before you board, your exposure to the sprays shouldbe kept in check.
According to the medical literature, some of the typical symptomsassociated with exposure to permethrin and phenothrin include tingling, burning, andnumbness in the skin, as well as neurological effects. Permethrin has been recognized as anirritant (both to eyes and skin) by the World Health Organization, and an adverse effect on thereproductive system and the immune system has been suggested in the medical literature. Finally, there is some concern that permethrin and phenothrin may be sensitizing agents; thatis, they may produce skin and respiratory allergies. Some of the other ingredients in thesesprays have also been associated with a variety of health effects.
How can exposure to these chemicals be kept to a minimum?
In mid-September 2000, United Airlines put a new policy into place for theAustralia flights -- a series of protections that they committed to execute after the residualspray has been applied in Sydney. In short, after the aircraft has been vented, the customerservice agents and the cleaning staff must now independently confirm that the cabin interiorsare dry and odor free before flight attendants are expected to board the aircraft in Sydney. Yet,as of this writing (March 2001), AFA continues to receive many reports of wet surfaces andstrong odors noted by flight attendants upon boarding.
It is critical that flight attendants assigned to these flights ensure that thecabin interiors, including the bunk area, are dry and odor free in Australia or New Zealand. Ifsurfaces are not dry and odor free when you board, you need to inform Station Operationsimmediately that the aircraft needs to be vented and dried. United flight attendants can saythat the United policy has not been met, The phone number for Stations Operations is alwayslocated in the jetway.
Exposure to the in-flight spray (standard practice in India and occasionallyused on the Australia/New Zealand routes) is more difficult to control because flight attendantsare often held responsible for applying the spray.
It will be a long and difficult road to convince the governments in Australia,New Zealand, and India to drop the spraying requirements, or to develop and requireprotective measures.
In the case of the residual spraying, we believe that at least the conditionscan be improved. This should simply be part of the cost of doing business in these countries. First, the airlines must provide a dry and odor free cabin.
If you have problems with the sprays, it is important that you file a reportwith your airline as soon as you arrive in the US. You need to keep a copy of the report foryourself and send one to your local AFA office. It would be very helpful if members could alsofill out an AFA reporting form (available now at the LAX and SFO bases, and atwww.afanet.org) and fax it to the AFA Air Safety & Health at the international office at 202-712-9793 or mail it to 1275 K Street NW, #500, Washington, DC 20005. The internationaloffice will be coordinating with the safety chairs at other bases whose members will be flying toIndia so that they can, at the very least, inform members of the spraying requirement.
Staff at the international office have also been spreading the word to theagencies that can make change, including the Department of Transportation, the EPA, theFederal Aviation Administration, the ICAO, and the World Health Organization. Every reportcounts.
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