Fliers fume over planes treated with pesticides

By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY

As the United Airlines jet winged home from Sydney last year, Sharon Dorazio’s eyes started to burn and her stomach ached. The pain became unbearable. “I have never been so sick, so quick,” she says. Her two grandsons, ages 13 and 14, complained of burning skin, itching eyes and loss of appetite. Sharon’s husband, Richard, a surgeon, was confounded.

Then a flight attendant confided in them. Others were ill on the flight, the attendant said, and the crew believed the cause was the spraying of long-lasting pesticides in the cabin interior before passengers boarded.

A lawsuit filed last week by the Dorazios is the latest in a series of challenges to the decades-old practice of spraying pesticides in airliners. Australia, New Zealand, India and a few smaller countries, such as Jamaica, are among the dwindling number that require all airlines flying in from other countries to treat their planes with pesticides to keep out unwanted bugs.

Some nations require passenger airplanes arriving from other countries to be sprayed with insecticide to protect plants, animals and people.

These countries require spraying of insecticides while passengers are on board:

  • Grenada
  • India
  • Kiribati
  • Madagascar
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Uruguay

These countries allow planes to be treated while they are empty; the pesticides used are designed to be effective for up to two months.

  • Australia
  • Barbados
  • Fiji
  • Jamaica
  • New Zealand
  • Panama

These countries require spraying of planes from particular regions where there are contagious or infectious diseases.

  • Czech Republic
  • Indonesia
  • South Africa
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom

Source: Department of Transportation

The World Health Organization says the pesticides used are safe. But the complaints of some people who have ridden treated airplanes range from dizziness and skin rashes to more serious conditions such as tremors and breathing problems. A flight attendant says she became unable to work at age 32 after six years of flying in planes treated with pesticides. A pilot says his flying ability became impaired after he napped in the pilot bunkroom of a Boeing 747-400 that had been sprayed before his flight.

Sharon Dorazio says she developed “headaches and severe nausea” while on the United jet, according to the complaint she and her husband filed in Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois, where United is based. Their lawsuit alleges that United “carried on a campaign of silence and misinformation” about the potential effects on passengers of cabin spraying. They are seeking class-action status for the case.

United declined comment on the lawsuit. Its spokeswoman, Chris Nardella, says United sprays “because we’re required to. As a company, we would prefer not to do this.” Other airline officials say the pesticides might be bothersome to a few people but do not cause long-term health damage.

Although all airlines that fly to countries with spraying requirements are affected, United is getting the most attention. It is the only U.S. carrier that flies to the three largest countries that mandate aircraft spraying — Australia, India and New Zealand. The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United employees, says the Dorazios’ flight was one of 214 United flights in the past year in which passengers, pilots or flight attendants complained about pesticide odors.

Where spraying is drawing new attention:

  • The USA’s largest pilots union is considering a campaign against the use of pesticides on aircraft. The Air Line Pilots Association is investigating reports of pilots who say they were affected by pesticides, and its executive board plans to discuss them in October.

One United co-pilot, in an internal report of a December incident, said his flying ability was impaired by pesticide used on a flight from Australia:

“My eyes started burning, and I said something to the other pilots and they had the same problem. When I awoke from first break, my head was congested, my eyes were burning, I had a sore throat and I had a rash on both sides of my neck. As the flight progressed, my sinuses swelled worse, I had problems swallowing and I was having problems breathing. I was making mistakes and suffering short-term memory loss and confusion.”

The report says he and another relief pilot in the four-man crew went to the airline’s medical office after landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it knows of only one incident of a pilot complaining about the effects of pesticide spray. “It’s extremely, extremely rare,” says spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

  • The Dorazios’ lawsuit follows another filed against United last month on behalf of employees. Its lead plaintiff is a flight attendant who says she developed a head-to-toe rash on a May 23 flight. “I thought I had the German measles,” says the flight attendant, Susan “Sam” Matthews. “It scared the hell out of me.”

United Airlines had no comment on that lawsuit, either.

  • California’s Department of Health Services is investigating about 100 cases of suspected pesticide illness from United planes. Preliminary findings are expected by Dec. 31. “We’ve known for a long time there are potential hazards from these aerosols,” says James Cone, chief of the occupational health branch.
  • The State Department urged officials of India earlier this year to end the required spraying of airplanes when passengers and crew are aboard. “Spraying when passengers and crew are present should only be done when absolutely essential,” says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Byerly.

The U.S. halted mandated spraying of planes with passengers aboard in 1979. United says India will allow it to spray planes when they are empty when United begins non-stops from Chicago to New Delhi on Oct. 27.

The issue has echoed in Congress. Thirty congressmen and 11 senators signed letters sent to the departments of State and Transportation this summer demanding to know what’s being done to protect passengers and air crews.

  • A Canadian flight attendants union says it has received 15 to 20 reports from cabin crew about symptoms of pesticide exposure in the past year on Air Canada flights to Sydney and has written the airline about it. Air Canada spokesman John Reber says, “We are aware of a limited number of flight attendants who have raised this specific concern. It would be incorrect to describe it as widespread or representative of general concern.”

The Flight Attendants Association of Australia says it’s starting to make inquiries to its major airline, Qantas, about the safety of spraying. Qantas officials say they haven’t had any complaints.

“This is not just a U.S. problem,” says Shane Enright, head of the civil aviation division of the London-based International Transport Workers Federation. “I am aware of cases in Europe and Australia of crews that have been affected.”

Two spraying methods

Aircraft insecticides are applied either from aerosol cans with passengers aboard or, in the case of Australia, New Zealand and some other countries, through “residual” spraying. In that method, workers in protective gear blanket a solution in an empty aircraft cabin that dries and leaves a residue that lasts up to 56 days.

Up to 2% of all passengers on planes treated or sprayed with pesticides may experience irritation, said Gary Kohn, a United Airlines medical director, in an internal memo last September. They will experience “bothersome conditions,” though they are “not dangerous in the long term,” he said.

Fliers may not realize the cabin was sprayed or smell insecticide.

“A lot of what we call jet lag may actually be pesticide poisoning,” says toxicologist Gary Ordog in Santa Clarita, Calif., who estimates he has treated more than 30 United employees as well as flight attendants from Alaska and Northwest airlines for illnesses related to pesticides.

Planes that have been treated may carry passengers who did not visit the countries where spraying is required. United has all 44 of its Boeing 747-400s treated with residual pesticides in Sydney. It then uses them on other flights around the globe.

Nardella says the residue poses no danger to passengers. Every plane airs out at least an hour before boarding, she says. Workers make sure that every plane is dry and odor-free before it flies.

Flight attendants who work the Australia-West Coast routes say airplanes’ interiors sometimes are still wet from spraying. United’s daily Flight 816 from Sydney to Los Angeles accounted for a third of the complaints in the past year, the flight attendants union says.

In August 2000, 13 flight attendants on Flight 816 breathed from oxygen bottles and sought medical treatment after landing in Los Angeles, says Judith Murawski of the Association of Flight Attendants. On another day on the same flight, flight attendants served passengers while wearing oxygen masks and the pilots stuffed a blanket under the cockpit door to keep out the odor.

Common pesticides

After years of exposure to pesticides, some flight attendants say their minor symptoms became serious — and eventually career-ending.

Flight attendant Diana Brown-Dodson, 37, became unable to work 5 years ago. She spoke to USA TODAY on the condition that her airline not be named. She estimates that she was exposed to pesticides about 150 times over 6 years of international flights. Now, she says six doctors independently have diagnosed exposure to pesticides as a cause. She stays home in Huntington Beach, Calif., tethered to an oxygen tank most of the day to help her breathe. She also has lost short-term memory and concentration — “couldn’t make the cake off a cake box,” she says.

One of her doctors, Man Brautbar in Los Angeles, says Brown-Dodson has a blood-cell disease and below-normal oxygen retention consistent with pesticide and second-hand smoke exposure. Brautbar, who treated patients in the poisoning case featured in the film Erin Brockovich , says he’s treated 15 to 20 other United flight attendants for the same conditions.

Another flight attendant says the memory loss, tremors, nosebleeds and other symptoms landed her on disability after 20 years of flying in the Pacific. Gracie Lerno, 62, of Simi Valley, Calif., says the first time she encountered the pesticides in 1979 she thought, “Oh my God. I’m being gassed.” She estimated she was exposed to pesticides 840 times over her career. Like Brown-Dodson, she did not want the airline she works for identified.

The insecticides that both women believe are the root of their troubles are as common as a can of Raid. They contain permethrin or phenothrin, synthetic versions of a natural insecticide found in chrysanthemums.

Permethrin is classed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “moderately to practically non-toxic pesticide” with the potential to cause eye or skin irritation. Products containing it must carry warning labels, even though it didn’t appear to cause any long-term damage in animal tests, the EPA says.

But, toxicologist Ordog says, comparing aircraft spraying to household use is like asking how many people would lock themselves in a closed pesticide-sprayed room for half a day. “The airplane is like an enclosed canister with the air being recycled,” he says. “Anything that’s sprayed in there, stays in there.”

The World Health Organization has long held that the pesticides are safe for aircraft use when the active ingredient in an aerosol makes up no more than 2% of its ingredients. A study released last year by the British House of Lords found no danger in cabin spraying.

Concentrations of the active ingredients sprayed in the cabin are so minuscule that they won’t harm crew or passengers, says Claus Crudt-Christensen, chief of medicine for the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal, which helps regulators around the world develop air policies and standards. Crudt-Christensen points out, too, that the complaints have been limited mostly to the USA and Canada. Spokeswomen for Air New Zealand and British Airways report few, if any, complaints about the spraying.

The Australians and New Zealanders say spraying has kept their countries free of malaria and other deadly diseases.

“If they were able to prove a direct link between aircraft spraying and a medical condition, there would be a need for the governments and the World Health Organization to reassess … but until such a time that indication of evidence is brought forward, we have the responsibility to protect Australia and its citizens from exotic diseases,” says Carson Creagh, spokesman for the Australia Quarantine and Inspection Service.

When airline passengers find out they are going to be present for spraying, they can become rebellious.

About 30 passengers shouted and rushed toward the door of United Flight 815 arriving in Sydney last November when an agricultural official informed them that they had to stay on board during aerosol spraying, according to a witness that USA TODAY interviewed. At least 15 people got off, but the Australian officials told the rest to return to their seats for the procedure. Instead, some passengers sat on the floor close to the exit.

The Dorazios, who live in Camarillo, Calif., say there was no detectable odor when they boarded their United plane in Sydney in August 2000. But Richard Dorazio, 62, chief of surgery at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, says he caught a strong whiff when a flight attendant opened a compartment near where they were seated. Sharon Dorazio, 61, a real estate agent, says her symptoms didn’t fully clear up for 3 weeks.

Besides damages, the Dorazio’s lawsuit asks the court to issue an order banning aircraft treated with residual pesticides from flying routes other than to countries that require the spraying. It also would require airlines to warn passengers about the presence of pesticide residue before they buy their tickets.

‘People need to be warned’

“People need to be warned about this,” says the Dorazios’ attorney, Perry Sanders Jr. of Lake Charles, La. “They need to be able to make a decision whether they want to fly under these circumstances.” Sanders has set up a Web site, www.pesticideplanes.com, for passengers affected by spraying.

Giving warnings to passengers isn’t a new idea. In 1995, the Department of Transportation proposed a rule that would have required airlines to tell passengers when they were going to be on a flight on which spraying would be required. But officials decided not to follow through because of the progress they made persuading 20 countries to drop their spraying requirements from 1994 through 1998.

The lawsuits against United aren’t the first to challenge spraying on aircraft. Houston attorney Linda Laurent still has an active lawsuit against five makers of aerosol insecticides that use permethrin. The lawsuit was filed in 1996 on behalf of Continental Airlines flight attendants. Continental is not a defendant.

Airlines say they try to make the required spraying as unobtrusive as possible. United told its Los Angeles-based flight attendants in a memo last November that it had changed the method of residual treatment from a drenching to a fogging sprayer. It also was applying a new solution with an odor absorber that has “a more pleasant smell, similar to a freshly shampooed carpet.”

The memo closes by imploring, “We ask that you remain professional and to demonstrate your leadership by keeping any personal concerns out of earshot of our customers.”

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