Flight attendants call for end to on-board insecticides

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

(Second in a three-part series)

Cliff Watts, 29, was working as a prison guard at an Eastern Oregon correctional facility when he suffered a chemical exposure last September. To kill the wasps that infested his guard tower, another prison employee emptied two 14-ounce cans of phenothrin into his small enclosed workspace.

Watts began to suffer itching skin and headache, broke out in hives a few days later, and began having regular seizures within a month.

Doctors he consulted were unfamiliar with the chemical, and workers’ compensation insurance officials denied his claim, saying the chemical isn’t considered a dangerous toxin, and suggesting his reaction might be something psychological.

But far from Watts’ Eastern Oregon community, other workers have been suffering similar reactions to a similar chemical, under similar circumstances: large amounts of a mild poison, in an enclosed space.

On certain international flights, pilots, passengers, and flight attendants spend up to 16 hours in what amounts to a tin can full of pesticide.

That’s because over a dozen countries, including Australia, New Zealand and India, require that incoming aircraft be treated with phenothrin or permethrin, two members of a class of pesticides known as pyrethroids. Pyrethroids are synthetic variations of a chemical found in the chrysanthemum that kills by interfering with insect nervous systems.

To prevent the spread via aircraft of insects that could harm economies, environments and public health, two methods are used. Between flights, when aircraft are on the ground, a solution containing permethrin is sprayed on all surfaces in the cabin and cockpit. Permethrin residue then stays on those surfaces, with fatal consequences for any insects that land there for the next eight weeks.

Alternatively, some countries require spraying while the planes are in the air and full of passengers. After aircraft reach cruising altitude, flight attendants make an announcement and then walk through the cabin spraying a phenothrin solution in the air above the seats.

Kerry Yuen, now retired and living in Carollton, Texas, was a flight attendant for 39 years, much of that time on the Los Angeles-Australia route. Yuen said sometimes the pesticide was applied so thickly you could see it dripping down the wall, covering instrument panels, coating the galley where food was prepared. She remembers the days when she emptied two cans of phenothrin per flight above the heads of passengers, though the label on the can said not to inhale.

In the mid-1990s, in-flight spraying of phenothrin came under congressional scrutiny after several congressmen, visiting New Zealand, were sprayed with the pesticide over their objections.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to ban the use of phenothrin in aircraft in the United States, and to protect U.S. citizens, the U.S. government was able to convince many countries to eliminate in-flight spraying requirements, particularly after the Department of Transportation (DOT) began considering a rule that passengers on U.S. carriers would be notified in advance that spraying would occur on flights to those countries.

But in most cases, the between-flight application of permethrin continued.

Pat Rinker of Harbor Springs, Michigan worked as a flight attendant for 36 years, the last four of which she flew a Chicago-Hong Kong route aboard aircraft that were being treated with permethrin. Rinker began having an asthma-like shortness of breath when she would return from Hong Kong.

“People would look at me and say, ‘What’s wrong with you; you can’t breathe,’” Rinker said.

She saw a doctor. Tests showed her lungs functioning at 30 percent of normal capacity. In November 2001, though she was eight years from her expected retirement, she decided she couldn’t keep going.

“I wanted to know, for myself, what caused this,” Rinker recalled.

Three months after her symptoms began, she found out from a co-worker that the planes she’d been flying on were being regularly sprayed with insecticide.

She filed a workers’ compensation claim, but it was denied on the grounds she couldn’t prove the pesticide exposure had caused her condition. To do something about flight attendants’ continued complaints about the effects of pesticide exposure, their union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) assigned industrial hygienist Judith Murawski to work on the issue in July 2000. Murawski helped the union set up a system for reporting health problems related to pesticide exposure, and has since tallied hundreds of such complaints.

Some complained of burning eyes, coughing and difficulty breathing. Others reported severe rashes and chemical burns — from the mattresses they sleep on during long flights — which had been soaked in a permethrin solution. Some flight attendants developed tremors. One had damage to an optic nerve after her face was sprayed. Others came down with immune system disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

“Flight attendants were saying, ‘Enough is enough. The union has to do something about this. We’re not going to do these flights.’”

AFA represents some 40,000 flight attendants at 26 airlines. But one airline stood out in complaints about pesticide spraying — United Airlines — perhaps because it’s the biggest and has the most international routes.

The AFA made a series of formal complaints to United, and the airline responded with a policy that no flight attendant would be required to board an aircraft until the pesticides were dry and their odor no longer present. But that policy, Murawski says, is not well-enforced.

United was the plaintiff in several pesticide-related lawsuits, but the suits were dropped after the airline entered bankruptcy.

Reacting to continued complaints from flight attendants, the California Department of Health Services conducted an in-depth investigation of six incidents of pesticide exposure aboard aircraft. In its report, published last October, researchers concluded that residual spraying of permethrin DOES in fact pose a health hazard to flight attendants. The department recommended that airlines educate their workers about the risks; inform passengers BEFORE they fly; limit the number of planes that must be treated by using the same planes to go to destinations that require the pesticide; keep workers out of the cabin immediately after pesticide application; improve ventilation; stop spraying in the crew rest area; and actively watch for illness among workers and passengers.

All of these things AFA had been requesting for years.

The department also recommended non-toxic alternatives be developed and implemented.

On that front, a breakthrough may be nearing. Last year, the DOT assembled a multi-agency task force to look at alternatives to pesticides. They conducted tests of “air curtain” technology, in which a powerful fan generates a blast of air that prevents flying insects from entering.

In late March 2004 the results of the tests were presented in Cairo to a meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

U.S. delegates to the meeting asked countries to consider dropping the requirement that all aircraft be sprayed regardless of what country the flight originates from. Delegates from several nations reportedly said they’d be willing to consider it; but approval of the pesticide alternative was referred to the World Health Organization, which in the past has been more concerned about the health risk posed by insects than the health risk posed by insecticides.

Meanwhile, AFA is collecting signatures on an online petition at ashsd.afacwa.org, which it plans to take to DOT and the press by mid-May.

(Editor’s Note: Part three of this series, appearing in the May 21 issue, will look at how pesticide users succeeded in slowly poisoning a union-supported law that was supposed to shed greater light on pesticide use in Oregon.)

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