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.