Pesticide spray application in the occupied or soon-to-be occupied aircraft cabin and cockpit can be a serious health hazard for crewmembers and passengers. Pesticide/solvent exposure can be significant, and some crewmembers must work in the sprayed environment regularly and repeatedly.
Almost 50 countries require pesticide spraying on all or selected flights, apparently to prevent the importation of insects that either carry tropical disease or damage plant/animal health. The cabin may also be pre-treated in a country that does not require pesticide spraying. Airlines do not inform passengers prior to ticket purchase or flight. The sprays contain an active ingredient (typically 2% permethrin or d-phenothrin), solvents, and in some cases, propellants. Reported symptoms include acute respiratory and sinus problems, rash/hives, headache, and anaphylactic shock, as well as chronic immune, respiratory, and neurological problems.
Damp mattresses and carpet in the crew bunk rooms have posed particular problems for cabin and cockpit crew. AFA advocates the use of non-chemical means of disinsection such as the air curtain technology which has been tested at a US Department of Agriculture lab in Florida, under the direction of the Department of Transportation.
There are four key reasons that AFA does not support the practice of spraying insecticides in the cabin and flight deck:
Key happenings and resources:
2023: NIOSH published a series of Aircrew Safety & Health webpages, including Exposure to pesticides on aircraft.
Oct 2016: At its 39th Assembly meeting, the ICAO Council approved a resolution to engage with the World Health Organization to develop performance-based criteria (among other recommendations) for non-chemical methods of disinsection. Read the full resolution.
Sept. 2016: AFA-CWA Flightlog article: Zika, Pesticides, and Appreciation to a Flight Attendant Who Thinks Outside the Box
April 2016: In response to concerns about transporting insects that could carry the Zika virus, some countries are going to add disinsection (pesticide spraying) rules on either all or selected incoming flights. This matters because crewmembers and passengers do not want to be sprayed with pesticides. Given the legitimate need for countries to prevent the spread of Zika and other vector-borne disease, it is especially important to complete the development/approve the use of a non-chemical option to prevent the transport of such insects in the aircraft cabin/flight deck. Read more here.
Feb. 2012: legislation that requires airlines to inform passengers of onboard pesticide spraying. The DOT notice commits the agency to address the requirements in a “future rulemaking.” As of Nov, 2013 the DOT has still not issued a rule to satisfy the passenger right-to-know legislation, approved by Congress. (Note that the CDC canceled its requirement for routine pesticide spraying on certain incoming flights in 1979 because the exposure to the sprays were deemed to ““cause undue discomfort to many passengers and, in some cases, place those exposed at risk of developing acute allergic (anaphylactic) reaction.” The CDC also noted that “the efficacy of the entire procedure is questionable.”)
Feb 2012: US airlines required to inform passengers of onboard insecticide applications, required to meet foreign quarantine rules (click on link and search for word “insecticides”): On Feb. 14, 2012, Congress passed legislation to ensure airline passengers are notified of exposure to insecticides that US airlines spray to comply with quarantine regulations of approx. 50 countries listed on this DOT website. (Click on link in title to access Public Law 112-95, section 415(c), § 42303. Use of insecticides in passenger aircraft.) The law covers pesticide spraying in countries that require inflight spraying on all/selected inbound flights, and countries that accept residual spraying but may spray inflight if residual spray expired. It should also notify passengers of onbobard insecticide spraying at any additional airports in countries that may not require spraying but are contracted with US airlines to spray the cabin, such that passengers could board a freshly-soaked aircraft prior to boarding. At present (Nov. 2013), it is not clear if the DOT website information is current, airlines are not notifying passengers of insecticide spraying, and DOT has not issued a rule.
2010: Published case study of Click here to read about a published case study of anaphylactic reaction to pesticides applied on aircraft, published in Nov. 2010.
Aug 2010: Information on which flights are sprayed with pesticides (partial list): Concerned about exposure to pesticides on a flight? Check this list and contact your airline. If you have additional or alternate information compared to what is on this partial list of sprayed flights, please email us.
2008: WHO issued 2nd edition of revised International Health Regulations, first published in 2005: This document confirms that the WHO expanded its definition of disinsection to include controlling insect vectors, in addition to killing them. This expanded definition means that non-chemical/mechanical methods qualifies as a valid disinsection method, although neither the WHO nor ICAO have published a performance standard to enable users to verify the efficacy of this option. [Note: IHR continues to be amended but, as of 2023, there are no relevant updates to the disinsection rules.)
Aug. 2008: Pyrethroids more toxic than previously thought: Center for Public Integrity publishes report titled “Perils of the New Pesticides”
June 2008: Proposed “passenger right to know” bill: This bill would require airlines to notify passengers of pesticide spraying rules prior to ticket purchase. It was referred to the House Subcommittee on Aviation on June 25, 2008. The same language was also proposed as part of the failed FAA Reauthorization process in 2008. The Department of Transportation proposed a similar measure in the form of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in 1995. During the next three years, airline opposition was strong to the proposed rule. For example, the contents of Docket 50031 reveal that American Airlines told the DOT that “requiring airlines and travel agencies to warn customers of potential health hazards is an unfair burden and could harm the public” and the ATA said that “if the NPRM is made final, the US Government will have become a willing and active participant in fostering continued aircraft disinsection.” The DOT withdrew its proposed rule in 1998, stating that it was “no longer justified” because a number of countries had dropped their spraying rules. Still, 47 countries require spraying on incoming flights. Transport Canada does recommend that airlines notify passengers of pesticide spraying rules prior to ticket purchase.
Sept. 2007: US asks WHO to consider non-chemical disinsection: At the 36th Session of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assembly, the US Government asked the ICAO Council to urge the World Health Organization to hold a consultation into non-chemical disinsection methods, with the view to the WHO accepting non-chemical methods as an alternative to the currently-approved chemical methods of disinsection. The resolution was accepted and the WHO intends to convene its consultation in late 2008. A summary of WHO and ICAO activity on aircraft disinsection is provided here.
2006: Research paper: A reassessment of the neurotoxicity of pyrethroid insecticides
Feb. 2005: Practical advice for crewmembers: Exposed to pesticides on a flight? Read this and take it to your doctor.
Oct. 2004: International body shows support for non-chemical alternatives to pesticides on planes: ICAO Assembly adopts a resolution that encourages the exploration of non-chemical means of aircraft disinsection and requests that the ICAO Council assist the WHO in this effort.
Oct. 23, 2003: Occupational Illness Among Flight Attendants Due To Aircraft Disinsection: Report published by California Department of Health Services Occupational Health Branch. Newsletter article here.
Oct. 2, 2003: Letter from AFA President to United Airlines CEO: Request for United to volunteer to participate in DOT-led testing for non-chemical alternative to spraying pesticides on planes.
2003. What chemicals are in the sprays? Association of Flight Attendants,
2003. Aircraft disinsection timeline: Association of Flight Attendants,
Sept. 2002: To spray or not to spray? Introducing a new approach to aircraft disinsection: Article proposing non-chemical alternatives to spraying pesticides on aircraft, published in Cabin Safety Update, Vol. 8, Issue 9, 2002.
March 7, 2002: Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to be sprayed: Aircraft disinsection - what has been, what is, and where to go from here: Paper presented by Judith Murawski, AFA at the 19th Annual SCSI International Aircraft Cabin Safety Symposium.
Jan. 2002: Excerpts from "The Airliner Cabin Environment and the Health of Passengers and Crew": Report by the Committee on Air Quality in Passenger Cabins of Commercial Aircraft, National Research Council; See p.204.
Jan. 2002: Letter from AFA President to United Airlines' CEO: Noted that formal request for United to change the description of the sprays as "safe" in the flight attendants' manual was pointedly ignored.
Nov. 2, 2001: Letter from AFA President to United Airlines' CEO: Formal notification that it is unacceptable for United to require flight attendants to tell passengers that the pesticide sprays are "safe" when all evidence is to the contrary. Requested change to related text in flight attendant announcement book.
Aug. 7, 2000: Letter from AFA President to United Airlines' CEO: Description of hazard and request for United to make specific changes to pesticide spraying practices.
1979: CDC issued final rule, canceling routine disinsection on aircraft arriving in the US
Mar 17, 2003. Pesticide Action Network Update Services: "Airline passengers are sprayed for bugs"
Sept 10, 2001. USAToday: "Fliers fume over planes treated with pesticides Some airline passengers, employees say required spraying in cabins can cause health problems, disabilities"
Aug 1, 2001. Associated Press: "Flight attendant sues United"
June 23-24, 2001. New Zealand Weekend Herald: "Cabin crew call up war hero in spray campaign"
May 16, 2001. New Zealand Herald: "Crews in revolt over plane spraying"
Jan 20, 1999. Pesticide Action Network North America: "New report highlights risk of pesticides used on aircraft"
1993-2001 .Series of articles by investigative/environmental reporters Linda & Bill Bonvie
Mar 24, 2003. Study of insecticide neurotoxicity yields clues to onset of Parkinson's Disease: Virginia Tech press release.
Feb 2001. ICAO Aircraft Disinsection Practices Survey: International Civil Aviation Organization Facilitation Panel
2000. Description of confounding factors, individual differences, and interactions related to pesticide exposure: Chapter 8 in: A Review of the Scientific Literature As It Pertains To Gulf War Illness, Volume 8: Pesticides.
May 14, 1996. Pesticide Registration Notice 96-3: US Environmental Protection Agency.
1996. Australian quarantine: A shared responsibility: Agriculture Fisheries, and Forestry – Australia, Australia Quarantine & Inspection Service. Nairn, ME; Allen, PG; Inglis, AR; and Tanner, C., Commonwealth of Australia; See Recommendation 67.
1985. WHO Recommendations On the Disinsecting of Aircraft: WHO Weekly Epidemiological Record, 60(7): 45-47.
Download: CabSafeUpdate2002.doc, LetterToWHO.0ct02.doc, scsi2_papermar02.doc, United.Pest.Aug00.pdf, United.Pest.Jan02.pdf, United.Pest.Nov01.pdf, United.Pest.Oct03.pdf, write2ICAOWHO.aug02.doc, icaoOct04.pdf, WP199.pdf, WHOICAO.pdf, paxbill.pdf, NPRM95.pdf, CBAT2005.pdf, term98.pdf, volun.pdf, CADHS03.pdf, OHW2004.pdf, publaw112-95.pdf, DOTpaxrtk.pdf, CDC_FR1979.pdf, ICAOwp2013.pdf, ICAOres2010.pdf, PestQandA.pdf, ICAOres2016.pdf, Flightlog2016.pdf, reghistory_web.pdf, practical.pdf, 2016_WP84.pdf, ICAOFALP3.pdf, ChemContents.pdf, 1979CDC_FR.pdf