EPA approves coronavirus-killing product — for just one airline

EPA approves coronavirus-killing product — for just one airline
© Bonnie Cash

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved what it says is the first long-lasting product to fight surface transmission of the coronavirus, but the special dispensation to use it is primarily going to one company: American Airlines. 

Monday’s announcement clears the way for the use of SurfaceWise2 by American Airlines in Texas, the first state to apply for an emergency exemption to use the disinfectant, which kills the virus on surfaces for up to seven days.

Though surface transmission is no longer thought to be a major source of spread of the virus, the EPA, alongside top executives for American Airlines and the cleaning product, touted SurfaceWise2 as a way to rebuild consumer confidence around flying.

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"This is a groundbreaking step that is expected to provide a longer-lasting protection in public spaces, increasing consumer confidence in resuming normal air travel and other activities," EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Smoke from wildfires has reached Europe | EPA postpones environmental justice training | UN report: Countries have failed to meet a single target to protect wildlife in last decade EPA postpones environmental justice training after White House memo OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' MORE said. 

But former EPA officials said it’s unusual for the agency to allow the product to be used by only one airline, when in theory any might find the product useful for cleaning surfaces throughout planes.

“It only says American Airlines. Not Delta Air Lines or United or some other airline that all fly through Texas. So American can use it when they can't, and that seems odd,” said Stan Meiburg, the acting deputy administrator of the EPA from 2014 to 2017.

The statute the EPA used to approve the new product — the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act — allows states to apply for emergency use of chemicals and pesticides when, say, there is an outbreak of some pest or disease on crops.

The Texas Department of Agriculture sought permission to use SurfaceWise2 both for American Airlines and Total Orthopedics Sports & Spine, an orthopedic and sports medicine practice with three locations in Texas. 

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Wheeler said he hopes other states will apply for similar waivers, but as of now, the product can be used only within Texas and only by American Airlines within the airline industry. If other airlines want to use the same product, they will have to demonstrate it would be effective on their surfaces, something he hopes could be approved quickly.

American Chief Operating Officer David Seymour told reporters that it will take months to route all of the airline’s fleet through Texas in order to apply the product. 

Meiburg said that while the state-based nature of the request was not unusual, limiting use of a product to one company is a departure from how the law is typically used for pesticides.

“It seems unusual that you would be thinking about it in terms of only something one company could do and allow it for one airline as opposed to any airline. That does seem very odd,” he said, comparing it with outbreaks faced by plants.

“If you had a citrus canker issue in central Florida that could be affected by a product, you wouldn't limit its use to one orchard,” he added.

Mark Loeffler, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said the agency applied for the waiver on behalf of American Airlines because “they requested it” and that the department would consider similar requests from other airlines that can make the case for why it would be an effective product for them.

Jack Housenger, a director of the Office of Pesticide Programs under the Obama administration, said the EPA is stuck with certain processes to a degree, but he questioned why the agency hasn’t finalized assessment of the product for other uses.

“The only way to grant it nationally is to actually register it. I’m not sure what the holdup there is,” he said. 

“It’s one airline,” Housenger said of Monday’s announcement. “If [this product] is such a big deal, why not expand it nationally for everybody?” 

American Airlines promoted the announcement itself shortly after the EPA did, sending out a press release saying it is “upgrading its Clean Commitment” by using the product, though the main source of coronavirus transmission is believed to be through the air.

The EPA’s announcement comes as the Republican Party kicks off its convention, where it will make the case that the Trump administration has been successfully battling the coronavirus outbreak.

A Monday poll from The Associated Press found that 31 percent of Americans approve of President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE’s response to the pandemic.

Wheeler said he was hopeful that other states would apply to use the product, perhaps in settings such as schools or hospitals, while the agency continues to evaluate household use. 

“We expect, though, that once this is out there, states will be interested in applying,” he said. “Perhaps for airlines, perhaps for schools, perhaps for subways. Whatever the surface area is, we're very hopeful that this could be approved on a fairly quick basis.”