There are lots of things to do when getting ready for a big trip to another country… from finding your passport and packing the right clothes… to checking all of the photo and video gizmos you want to bring along.
So, it’s probably safe to say that the last thing on your mind is protecting yourself from getting sick from the airplane that’s transporting you to your dream destination.
No, I don’t mean all of the crying babies and hacking coughs that you’ll be subjected to on a long flight – because there’s something dangerous that happens to that plane before you ever step on board. And you may have no idea the risks you’re being exposed to.
Aircraft pesticide spraying (officially called “disinsection”) is probably the worst kept secret in the industry.
Sure, it hits the news every so often — typically when a passenger or flight crew member becomes seriously ill and sues. But otherwise, it’s spraying as usual for airlines such as United, American, and any others that wing off to locales ranging from Australia and New Zealand to Fiji and Jamaica.
That’s why before you pack your bags for that dream vacation, you need to know if your destination will require you to spend hours sitting in a cabin that’s been coated with toxic chemicals (or even worse).
The not-so friendly skies
Annette Fea didn’t expect to end her relaxing vacation by inhaling a toxic pesticide spray.
But after her plane landed in New Zealand, Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants sprayed the entire cabin with an aerosol chemical meant to kill any insects that might have hitchhiked along from Honolulu.
The Australian woman says that she started to feel sick right away, suffering from difficulty breathing that lasted for weeks after the incident.
Sharon Dorazio, on the other hand, never even saw the pesticide application that put her in unbearable pain. “I have never been so sick so quick,” she recalled. And that United flight from Sydney to the U.S. also made her two grandsons suffer from burning skin and itchy eyes.
But she only found out about the pesticide application when a flight attendant told her that the plane had been sprayed before the passengers had boarded.
Fea and the Dorazio family are far from the only passengers who have had serious reactions to the pesticides used on international flights. In fact, these chemicals have caused travelers to suffer from a whole host of health issues, ranging from dizziness, burning skin, and rashes all the way to breathing problems and tremors.
As one toxicologist said about the practice, even a lot of what’s called “jet lag” may actually be pesticide poisoning!
And while spraying upon arrival to certain destinations certainly isn’t a new practice (DDT was originally used for this purpose decades ago), it certainly hasn’t gotten any safer over the years… only more secretive.
Currently, airlines that land in over 30 locales are required to permeate the cabin with bug-killing chemicals – while passengers are on board (such as Fea experienced) or with a long-lasting fumigation application that’s applied out of view of passengers.
Some airlines will even do both!
And even if you’re heading home to the U.S., which doesn’t mandate spraying, you can still be affected (like the Dorazios), as the plane may have been pre-sprayed to prep it for the return flight.
If you ask, attendants will tell you that it’s something airlines are forced to do because of regulations in countries where they land (true) and that these chemicals are absolutely safe (definitely not true!).
Even the CDC admits that these pesticides contain “solvents, propellants, surfactants and synergists” and that we really don’t know about the health effects of being exposed to “these mixtures.” Oh, and more research is needed to find out if they’re really safe to use in airplane cabins.
Seriously? And when is that going to happen? After another 50 years, perhaps?
In the meantime, the CDC will tell you that there is “no single set of standards” for how this spraying is done.
And the EPA currently approves none of the chemicals sprayed inside an aircraft cabin. (One from the 1990s, called Black Knight Roach Killer, had its registration cancelled years ago.)
So, airlines are essentially “winging it” when it comes to what they apply.
They are supposed to follow World Health Organization guidelines by using a variety of synthetic pyrethroids, pesticides that are created to be similar to naturally occurring pyrethrins derived from chrysanthemum flowers. But don’t think that since they’re somehow related to flowers, they’re safe. The WHO considers pyrethroids to be “neuropoisons” – which are literally toxic chemicals that poison the central nervous system.
While there’s no way to avoid this hazard if you want to fly to countries like Barbados, Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia and New Zealand (for a complete list, check the website at the Department of Transportation), there are three ways you can help lower your exposure:
#1 Don’t use airline-issued pillows and blankets, as they could have taken a direct hit from the pesticides. Instead, stash your own in your carry-on.
#2 Since there’s no way to avoid touching the seat, hand rest, or other plane parts that may have been sprayed, wash your hands before eating anything.
#3 Well before landing, ask a flight attendant if there is any chance that they will be using an aerosol spray inside the cabin before passengers disembark. This may be done for a number of reasons – one being that the aircraft’s “fumigation” certificate has expired. If that’s the case, ask to be able to leave before the spraying starts. Your reasons can include any health problems you may have that could be worsened by the pesticide.
That last one is a long shot, but sometimes it works. And bringing along a note from your doctor that confirms why you should be allowed to leave before the spraying starts could help tip a decision in your favor!
“Aircrew safety & health” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NIOSH, cdc.gov