On a Toxic Flight

By Megan Izen Dec 10, 2008

Buried deep in the Health Tips section of South African Airways website is a small notice from the World Health Organization that requires them to disinsect the cabin of certain aircraft. They don’t tell you this when you buy your ticket or even before boarding the plane. I learned this the hard way on my journey home from a two-week stay in Mozambique and Swaziland, when once the doors were shut and there was no escape, a friendly pre-recorded voice filled the cabin telling us that the WHO says it’s okay to spray us and to cover our noses if we think we’ll have a bad reaction. Then the flight attendant uncovered two small aerosol cans, making his way to the front of the plane and back, covering us in a mist of strongly-perfumed chemicals. I was confused and surprised because two weeks prior, when entering Mozambique from South Africa, our plane was spared the toxic mist shower gift. Only Mozambicans and other travelers entering South Africa are inundated in a confined space by known carcinogens. The active ingredient in the WHO-endorsed spray is permethrin, a toxic insecticide. While I understand the need to prevent the spread of plant diseases from country to country, we should be told what we’re being sprayed with, the potential side effects and given an opt-out opportunity. I’m not sure what I would have done, but I know I would have tried to avoid ingesting something that made me ill for three full days. Travelers usually expect to get sick when abroad, and I’m no exception, but I anticipated fresh vegetables and water to do the damage, not South Africa Airways and the World Health Organization. It makes me wonder what other toxins are being forced on developing communities around the world for ‘the greater good’ without explanation or choice?