Less poison in planes

On some intercontinental air routes, the crew sprays insecticides during the flight. This in-flight spraying aims to prevent insects being imported which may transmit pathogens. "This method involves health risks for passengers and crew", explained the BfR President, Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel. "In cooperation with the Federal Environmental Agency, the Fraunhofer Institute of Toxicology and Experimental Medicine and Deutsche Lufthansa, an effective method of airplane disinsection has been developed and tested which scarcely places any burden on passengers and crew." The new method has since been tested in various types of aircraft and is ready for use. The research project was co-initiated and financed by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

Long-distance travel increases the risks of specific pathogens of malaria, yellow fever or dengue being imported by insects from the tropics into other regions on earth. The cases of airport malaria in Europe and the USA are one example of this. In order to reduce the risk of a global spread of diseases which had mainly been found in tropical regions up to now, it is necessary to control insects on certain air routes. Some countries insist on this insect control, called airplane disinsection, in the airplane cockpit and passenger cabin. Both passengers and crew are exposed to a veritable “insecticide shower”. The basis for this provision is a recommendation of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

BfR and its predecessor institution, BgVV, have pointed out for years that this type of control of infectious insects in airplanes, called in-flight spraying, is harmful to health (cf. bgvv Press Releases 19/96 and 11/1998). The insecticides used for in-flight spraying contain pyrethrum and pyrethroids as the active substances. Both affect the nervous system. In unfavourable conditions passengers and crew can take in such high levels of these substances through the skin and respiratory tract that their health is impaired.

In a research project BfR in cooperation with the Federal Environmental Agency, the Fraunhofer Institute of Toxicology and Experimental Medicine and Deutsche Lufthansa have developed and tested a disinsection method which permits effective control of insects in the plane before crew and passengers go on board. In the case of this “pre-embarkation method”, insecticides containing a short-term active substance are sprayed at a relatively high concentration in the empty cabin and cockpit by a technician. The passengers and crew only board the aircraft when the air concentration is so low that there need be no fear of a risk to health.  Any insects on board the plane are killed by this method. Even insects which come on board with the passengers are killed since the active substances settle on the surfaces on which the insects land and rest. Over a period of several hours they act as contact insecticides.

“The new method is fast and effective. Passenger exposure is so low that no health damage is to be expected”, explained Dr. Klaus Erich Appel, Deputy Head of the Centre for Experimental Toxicology within BfR and head of this project. The ground times of the aircraft are only slightly longer with this new method.

Some airlines intend to start using the new pre-embarkation method soon on routes on which in-flight spraying has been used up to now. Furthermore, the research results have been submitted to the competent bodies of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The objective is to have the new method taken over into the WHO recommendations on airplane disinsection.

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