To Battle Covid, Airlines Bet on Disinfectants That Come With Questions


Many airlines have suspended beverage service because of the pandemic, but they are serving a new brew in passenger cabins: multiple doses of disinfectants.

Between flights, most are spraying seats, armrests, tray tables, overhead bins and other areas with chemicals that come with toxicity warnings and require gloves and eye protection to apply. The virus-killing mixtures have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, and manufacturers and airlines say they are safe. But they have never been used with such frequency and volume on aircraft.

Make no mistake—killing the virus that has killed a million people world-wide is the priority. But scientists say long-term effects of one chemical used by several airlines, including the three biggest U.S. carriers, aren’t well known, and multiple applications of it each day hasn’t been studied. The chemical is a quaternary ammonium compound. QACs, or quats, have been linked to lung damage and asthma.

The coronavirus is not hard to kill: Many types of cleaners and disinfectants can do the job. And some that work, including those made with citric acid or hydrogen peroxide, are less toxic than QACs. Either way, scientists say there needs to be more study of long-term exposure.

“It’s definitely a concern, and one that we’re watching with a little bit of alarm,” says Sarah Evans, assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

The potential risk comes mainly from the possibility of inhaling QACs. Airlines say cabins are dry and odor-free before pilots, flight attendants and passengers board. But there’s little if any testing to ensure chemicals aren’t lingering in the air or on surfaces, they say.

“The regular once-in-awhile flier has nothing to worry about,” says Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, who has studied QACs. But crews and frequent fliers, once frequent flying resumes, would be more at risk, he says.

“We are on a dangerous path here,” Dr. Khubchandani says.

The Middle Seat quizzed each U.S. airline on exactly which chemicals they are applying in cabins. All responded except Alaska. Spirit declined to disclose what chemicals it is using—a spokesman said that was “proprietary” information.

While airlines have been quick to promote their cleanliness programs—cleanliness has become a competitive issue during the pandemic—it turns out most are using the same stuff.

A cleaner called Calla 1452, approved for aircraft use since 2000, is used by American and Delta. Southwest uses Sani-Cide EX3, a lactic acid cleaner and disinfectant made by Celeste Industries. United,

JetBlue

and Hawaiian use both.

Calla 1452, made with QACs, is rated in the EPA’s second-highest hazardous category for health and can severely irritate and damage skin and eyes, according to the safety data sheet issued by the product’s manufacturer, Zip-Chem Products. (Many household-cleaning products earn the EPA’s fourth-highest rating.) The chemical dries quickly, but gloves and safety glasses are recommended for routine use and people should avoid breathing vapors, the product information says.

QACs are found in household cleaning products, but not in the quantities sprayed in airplanes. Mount Sinai’s Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health issued a paper in 2015 citing studies linking asthma to use of cleaning products containing QACs.

Zip-Chem Products, based in Morgan Hill, Calif., says the EPA toxicity level is for the concentrated form and is lower when diluted for normal industrial use.

“With regards to multiple applications on surfaces,

Boeing

has been evaluating our product, as well as other disinfectants, for its impact on multiple uses throughout the day. There has been no evidence of any accumulation for Calla 1452,” says Zip-Chem research and development lab manager Jason Smith.

After several months of use in cabins, airlines and unions representing crew members report no complaints. Judith Anderson, an industrial hygienist and health and safety expert for the Association of Flight Attendants, says the union has had some reports from members concerned about the products being sprayed, but no reports of illnesses or problems.

Flight attendants have been much more concerned about passengers refusing to wear masks, Ms. Anderson says.

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While she can’t unequivocally declare the chemical spraying safe, she says, her group’s main concern is the spread of Covid-19. “So under the circumstances, people are willing to accept more than they would if we did not have a global pandemic under way,” she says.

Celeste says Sani-Cide EX3 is registered with the EPA for use on aircraft, as well as general industrial and commercial settings, and has gone through test criteria designed by the airline industry to be compatible with cabin interiors.

“When used as directed, Sani-Cide EX3 should not leave any undue residue on the surface and is safe for multiple times a day,” says Emily Romblad, Celeste’s customer marketing manager.

Dr. Evans says lactic acid products like San-Cide EX3 don’t raise as many concerns as QACs. She and others suggest airlines should be rotating products to minimize the exposure to particular chemicals.

Another concern: Is dousing the cabin with sprayers overkill? Workers wiping down high-traffic surfaces could be just as effective, scientists say. But that takes more time and labor and may not be as reassuring to an apprehensive public. Airlines say the disinfecting will continue after the pandemic.

That’s a concern to some. “We cannot be living like this forever,” Dr. Khubchandani says.

Airlines are pursuing alternatives, including ultraviolet lights that kill viruses.

Delta is working with Lysol on developing new virus-killing products for airports and airplanes. And American is working with the EPA and Allied Bioscience to develop protocols for electrostatic spraying of an antiviral substance called SurfaceWise2 that leaves a protective coating capable of killing viruses for long periods.

Delta has been using Matrix #3, a brand name for Calla 1452, for over a decade, but uses it more now. The airline sprays cabins with the product between flights and has workers wipe it on high-touch surfaces.

“It is a very, very safe product. It’s one where people can board immediately following the conclusion of the cleaning process,” says Mike Medeiros, Delta’s vice president of global cleanliness.

The EPA has given American emergency authority to spray SurfaceWise2 on airplanes in Texas, home to American’s largest hub.

The EPA has rated it effective for seven days. That number could increase as tests come back. It does get worn down by abrasion from clothing or even wipes that passengers use to disinfect.

American hopes to expand spraying to its entire fleet. So far it has sprayed about 10% of its single-aisle airplanes.

The actual treatments come after an overnight deep cleaning of the airplane. It takes a pair of workers, each spraying a side of the cabin. The spraying happens twice—once when things like overhead bins and tray tables are open and once closed. Treating a plane like a Boeing 737 takes about three hours.

“We think we really have a game-changing product,” says David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer.

SurfaceWise2 has the same toxicity—EPA level 4—as many household cleaners, Mr. Seymour says.

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