alive logo

Coffee, tea, or...Disinsection?


Coffee, tea, or...Disinsection?

If you have a flight coming up, you might get more than juice and a movie. Disinsection is the term used to describe the spraying of aircraft with insecticide.

If you have a long-haul flight coming up, you might get more than a glass of juice and a movie. You might also get a dose of pesticides.

Disinsection is the term used to describe the spraying of aircraft with insecticide. The procedure aims to prevent the transport of mosquitoes and other bugs that could be carrying deadly diseases such as malaria or dengue fever.

The World Health Organization deems the amount and type of chemicals used for disinsection to be safe. Not everyone agrees.

Where it’s done

As of August 2009, 49 countries worldwide required disinsection, with varying rules. Australia, India, Cuba, and Jamaica, for instance, require the spraying of all incoming international flights. Other destinations, such as Buenos Aires, Argentina, require disinsection if a flight originates in Chile, but not if it departs from Toronto.

The UK enforces the rules for planes coming from malarial countries, Switzerland requires spraying of flights from intertropical Africa, and the Czech Republic demands disinsection of flights from areas of contagious diseases.

How it’s done

There are three ways airlines kill bugs:

  • The “on-arrival” method takes place before passengers have disembarked and involves flight attendants spraying single-shot aerosol doses of insecticide throughout the cabin.
  • The “top-of-descent” method is the same as the on-arrival approach, except that it takes place just before the jet makes preparations for landing.
  • The “residual” method involves the spraying of an aircraft’s internal surfaces, except food preparation areas, when the plane is empty.

The most common chemicals used are pyrethroids, synthetic nerve poisons also used to eradicate head lice. Just before spraying, crew members must alert passengers, telling them to cover their eyes and nose if they wish.

Why it’s done

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that although passengers and crew members have reported reactions to insecticides, including rashes, respiratory irritation, burning eyes, and numbness of the lips, “there are no data to support a cause-and- effect relationship.”

The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, claims that the insecticides have “no toxicological hazard” and are “safe to use in the presence of passengers and crew.” By not carrying out disinsection, WHO argues, airlines could introduce mosquito species, as well as diseases such as malaria in new countries. Planes that refuse disinsection can be denied disembarkation.

According to Antero Aitio, medical officer for WHO’s International Programme on Chemical Safety, side effects of pyrethroids are “annoying but of short duration and without serious consequences.” However, he noted in a 2002 issue of the WHO Bulletin that “all chemicals are toxic” and recommended research into substances that have “far fewer adverse effects.”

Why it shouldn’t be done

The Washington, DC-based Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) has been documenting disinsection-related illnesses of its members since the early 1990s. In 2000 alone the AFA collected reports of health problems from staff on 230 flights with a single airline.

Symptoms included sinus problems, swollen and itchy eyes, coughing, difficulty breathing, rashes, headaches, and fatigue. In more serious cases, people reported nervous-system and immune system damage. One pilot said he felt so sick after disinsection that he believed the safe operation of the flight was compromised.

Among other measures, the AFA would like countries such as Australia to modify their regulations so treatment would only be required on aircraft arriving from places that could pose a risk to public health or agriculture. For instance, it might not be necessary to spray flights originating in northern latitudes, particularly in the winter.

The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization wants WHO to explore nonchemical approaches to disinsection. Even some members of the US Congress have spoken out against the current practice.

Nevertheless, the spraying continues.

To find out if your flight is affected, speak to your airline directly or check its website, or contact Transport Canada (

Canada’s disinsection requirements

Transport Canada does not require the disinsection of aircraft arriving in or departing from Canada. However, Canadian-registered aircraft must comply with the disinsection requirements of other countries.

Source: Transport Canada



Taking Care of the Body’s Supercomputer

Taking Care of the Body’s Supercomputer

Suzanne MethotSuzanne Methot