Plane 'disinsection' bugs travelers

June 26, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Flying to St. Lucia on their honeymoon recently, Andrew Fish and his wife got more than complimentary beverages and a couple of bags of peanuts.

They and their fellow passengers also got a dose of D-phenothrin, a powerful roach killer sprayed throughout the cabin of the commercial airliner during the flight.

So do millions of unwitting air travelers flying from the United States to more than 20 countries around the world, most of them in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under "disinsection" regulations enforced by many foreign governments, passengers

and flight crews of incoming airliners are required to be sprayed with insecticide before disembarking. The purpose is to prevent the spread of diseases carried by insects.

For the Clinton administration, which has begun an effort to stem the use of dangerous pesticides in the United States, that practice is becoming a tricky political issue at home and a delicate diplomatic issue abroad.

D-phenothrin is the same chemical found in such commonly used household pesticides as Black Knight Roach Killer. The user label on that can warns: "avoid breathing; avoid contact with skin and eyes." In airplanes, it is dispensed as "Airosol Aircraft Insecticide," a product registered by the Environmental Protection Agency -- in error, the agency now admits -- for use in airplane cabins.

"I find it hard to believe that spraying roach killer on people in planes is safe," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who is crusading to halt the practice or to require full disclosure to passengers.

The United States can't force foreign governments to change their disinfectant requirements, Mr. Leahy said. But, he said, it certainly can work to discourage the practice and, meanwhile, ,, can insist that passengers know where they'll be sprayed and with what.

Mr. Leahy has asked the administration to look into the practice. But he also hopes to use his position on the Senate Appropriations Committee's foreign operations subcommittee, which dispenses foreign aid to many of the countries that require the spraying, to end the practice.

For their part, airline companies say they have little choice but to comply with the regulations.

"We're in the middle on this," said Joe Hopkins, media relations manager for United Airlines. "It's required by the governments of the countries we fly into, and if we were not to comply, they could lift our certificates."

As air travelers go, Mr. Fish and his wife, Alicia Bambara, are unusual: Because Ms. Bambara is an aide to Mr. Leahy, they knew they would be sprayed. But even under repeated questioning, the crew of the U.S. carrier that they flew to St. Lucia was unable to tell them exactly when in the flight they would be sprayed or what pesticide compound would be used. In some aircraft, the pesticide is disbursed through the cabin's internal ventilation system, while in others flight attendants pass through the cabin with a small aerosol can, spraying around passengers.

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