Count disinsection among risks of travel


If you're planning your next vacation in a warm locale outside the United States, and you're planning to fly there, be advised you might be "disinsected" en route.

That means you could be sprayed with a pesticide, and it may be difficult or impossible to find out in advance whether this will occur on your flight.

Airplane disinsection was discontinued in the United States about 15 years ago when the Centers for Disease Control found it to be neither safe nor effective. But it's still required by some foreign countries concerned about insects entering their borders via aircraft. The chemicals used in the process reportedly have had adverse effects on people -- including a California woman who recently filed suit against American Airlines.

Airline representatives say d-phenothrin, contained in the spray Airosol Aircraft Insecticide -- also marketed as Black Knight Roach Killer -- is "approved" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA, however, doesn't approve pesticides, it merely registers them. EPA officials privately acknowledge that the agency may have goofed when it registered this substance for commercial aircraft application in 1979. The agency is involved in a re-evaluation of that use.

What has the EPA over a barrel, however, is that while it can dictate whether a pesticide is permitted to be used by U.S. carriers, it has no say in what foreign countries require of planes landing on their soil.

'Hazardous to humans'

The pesticide d-phenothrin is labeled "hazardous to humans." The label further states the chemical is not meant to be inhaled, to come into contact with skin or eyes or to be applied in an enclosed space that isn't ventilated before being re-entered.

The EPA is obliged to deal with contradictions between warnings on the product's label and directions for its use in an aircraft cabin, which call for it to be applied at least 30 minutes before landing with everyone on board and ventilators closed.

But EPA officials are afraid that if a ban is instituted, in the words of registration division director Steve Johnson, "U.S. airplanes won't be able to land in those countries.

"The problem is that there isn't any other product registered [for use aboard airliners]," he said, nor does the EPA know of a safer one. A revocation of that registration would in his opinion not simply disrupt international air traffic -- "it would be stopped. We're not talking about an inconvenience here, we're talking about stopped."

Were it not for that problem, Mr. Johnson's recommendations would be to halt the spraying altogether -- at least when there are people present. "That's what I want to have happen," he said. "And whether in fact we can make that happen in all the countries, I don't know. And if we can't, then the best that I can do is say . . . 'don't get on the plane,' "

Not getting on the plane is what the airlines suggest if you have such conditions as asthma, respiratory illness or sensitivity to chemicals. You can avoid the chemical "by not taking the flight," said United Airlines spokesman Joe Hopkins.

But even if you decide you're better off not being exposed -- if for no other reason than not liking pesticides -- the question arises: which flights should you avoid taking?

Trying to get an answer from airline personnel can be a frustrating experience. Usually, it isn't until the plane is in the air that passengers are informed a "harmless" insecticide is about to be dispensed. United Airlines, for instance, instructs its flight attendants to "reassure passengers that the spray contains no chemicals that are harmful to humans."

In Julia Kendall's case, despite having informed airline personnel of her chemical sensitivity, she claims she wasn't told anything prior to seeing a flight attendant dispensing pesticide on her American Airlines flight from Miami to St. Martin in October 1992. By that time, Ms. Kendall, who heads an environmental group in San Rafael, Calif., says she was coughing and experiencing shortness of breath, but was prevented from immediately leaving the plane when it landed. Subsequent symptoms, she says, included a throbbing head, aching joints, chills, swollen lymph glands and an elevated white blood cell count. Her resulting $8.5 million suit against the airlines is scheduled to be heard this month.

One way to keep from being sprayed, of course, is to simply avoid flying to the 23 destinations known by the Air Transport Association to require disinsection of incoming commercial aircraft. In addition to Australia, New Zealand and St. Martin, they include Guam, Saipan, Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guatemala, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. But that's not necessarily a comprehensive list, acknowledges Air Transport Association spokesman Chris Chiames.

Which is why U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena is currently "trying to figure out a way to work with [U.S.] airlines" to warn passengers in advance if the flight they're scheduled to board is to be disinsected, according to Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jennifer Watson.

Airline silence

The airlines, however, are concerned "that if they tell people that a practice of theirs is a potential health hazard and [a foreign] carrier isn't saying anything, then the average consumer may think that the other carrier isn't spraying and may decide to use the other carrier," Ms. Watson said. "If this is a problem, our

efforts are not appropriately targeted at foreign governments."

Those governments, however, may not be willing to give up the spraying policy, which has the approval of the World Health Organization. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, for example, issued a statement in January saying it would continue spraying.

The EPA, meanwhile, says its registration of the pesticide was based on research regarding "similar" products. Now, the agency is planning a "data call-in" from the manufacturer on such issues as inhalation and skin and eye irritation, according to Bob Brennis, the EPA's new product manager for Airosol Aircraft Insecticide. To revoke the chemical's registration, he said, "we would have to show that this is definitely hazardous to the public."

Some, however, think that should be obvious from the warning on the label. "Passengers should complain in the strongest terms to airlines, to the FAA, to the EPA, to the White House, to Congress," said Becky Riley, spokeswoman for the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, who says there is new evidence that synthetic pyrethroid pesticides, including d-phenothrin, may cause abnormalities in the reproductive tract.

"Pesticides are not safe -- they're poisons designed to kill living organisms," she added. And while "in other cases possibly consumers have some control over whether they use them in their own houses or yards, in this case you're literally a captive audience, which is really the appalling thing."

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