Is the spray harmful in airplanes?

Stewardess with spray can: Why is spraying on the plane

by Peter Carstens
Perhaps you have already wondered why the stewardess runs through the rows with a spray can before landing? It could be insecticide - which is sprayed strictly according to regulations

Thick air in airplanes: Again and again so-called worries fume events for excitement. The poisonous vapor from engine oils unintentionally gets into the cabin air. What many airline passengers do not know: On some flights, substances are even deliberately applied that may be hazardous to health. Namely insecticides - in a spray can.

The reason for the poison shower: With global mobility, the risk of non-native insects being introduced into the destinations increases - and with them the pathogens of diseases such as malaria, yellow or dengue fever, explains Claudia Nehring from the Federal Association of German Aviation Industry (BDL). Some countries therefore stipulate that luggage and cabin contents must be disinfected. And thus follow an official recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO).

On flights by German airlines, this affects the destinations Barbados, Cuba, India, Jamaica, Madeira, Mauritius, Maldives, Mexico, Seychelles and Trinidad / Tobago.

On flights to these countries, passengers must expect sooner or later to be sprayed with pesticides by the flight crew - either before boarding, before take-off or shortly before landing. This is called disinsection in technical jargon. At German airlines, according to Nehring, the pesticides are usually used shortly before landing.

Mostly pyrethrum, a substance obtained from chrysanthemums, or synthetic insecticides, so-called pyrethroids, are used. While the fog in the cabin and in the overhead lockers is supposed to reliably kill mosquitoes and the like, according to the WHO, it is harmless to human health. In addition, the substances should degrade within hours.

Incidents with pesticides on board

However, the on-board pesticides do not seem to be entirely without side effects. Cases of itching, skin rashes, throat irritation, tingling and headaches are documented - especially among the on-board personnel, who are exposed to the poisonous mist far more frequently than most passengers.

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"The crew and passengers are exposed to a real 'insecticide shower'", declared the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) a few years ago. The substances used "have an effect on the nervous system" and "under unfavorable circumstances such quantities could be absorbed through the skin and the respiratory tract that health is impaired".

In individual cases, for example with people who are sensitive to the toxins, the consequences can be dramatic. The case of an Irish businessman made headlines in 2011. After the flight crew sprayed an insecticide on an Air France flight, he suffered a violent asthma attack. The plane had to make an emergency landing, and a court awarded the passenger 50,000 euros in compensation for pain and suffering.

Alternatives have long been available

For 20 years now, the BfR has been calling for the harmful spraying of insecticides to be stopped during the flight and for the toxins to be applied in the empty plane before boarding instead. The BfR had developed a procedure for this in cooperation with the Federal Environment Agency, the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine and Deutsche Lufthansa - and it has proven its practicality. But as long as the WHO does not include the procedure in its recommendations, nothing will change in the poison shower on certain flights.

Anyone who wants to be as safe as possible from the poisonous mist should therefore wear long clothing. "Gas masks are also allowed," says Claudia Nehring - "as long as they comply with hand luggage regulations and do not affect the electronics on board."

Anyone who protests against the spray shower during the flight, however, has bad cards: After all, it is a legal requirement, says Clauda Nehring. "The crew has no room for discretion."

Travelers who do not want to be fogged with insecticide under any circumstances should check with the airline before booking. If disinsection is required at the travel destination, all that remains is to forego the flight.

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