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The Canadian Lung Association is deeply disappointed with Air Canada and WestJet, both of which now allow pets in airplane cabins.

This policy, which Air Canada instituted July 1, leaves thousands of Canadians who suffer from allergies, asthma and other respiratory diseases unable to fly without being exposed to allergen. For many of those who suffer from lung disease, the risk simply isn't worth the benefit of flying.

Air is recycled through the vents in airplane cabins, which are small spaces to begin with. This means that even a small amount of allergen - pet hair, saliva, urine, dander - can spread quickly, reaching every passenger on the plane, even people sitting far away from the pet.

For people who have both allergies and asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pet allergen can trigger wheezing, coughing and swelling in their airways. These attacks can be serious, even life-threatening.

Louise Steeves, an employee with the New Brunswick Lung Association, feels she can no longer travel by air. She says it's not her allergies that bother her - she can live with itchy, watery eyes for a short period. But the associated asthma attack bothers her. Not being able to breathe is terribly frightening, especially when it occurs on a plane. There's nowhere to escape for fresh air. You can't even open a window.

After 30 years of trial and error, Louise has finally found the right combination of medications to control her asthma - two pills and two inhalers twice daily, plus a rescue inhaler to use when needed. She spends about $300 a month to be able to breathe. But if an asthmatic like Louise is exposed to the wrong allergens, all the medications in the world won't spare her from an asthma attack.

Air Canada and WestJet have implemented guidelines they feel will protect allergic passengers from exposure, such as allowing a maximum of four pets per flight and allowing allergic passengers to switch seats or flights. This may sound reasonable to some.

But even small amounts of animal allergen tends to float throughout an airplane cabin. It can stay in the air for hours before settling on the surface of walls, draperies, upholstered furniture and carpet. It is released back into the air when disturbed and can continue to trigger asthma hours, days, weeks or months later - up to a year, especially in a small, enclosed space. Even if a passenger transfers to a plane that has no animals on board, the allergens from previous flights can be recirculated throughout the cabin.

Allergen is also found in the clothes of people who have been exposed to pets. Some people with allergies will have symptoms in public places if animal dander has been brought in on an owner's clothing.

At provincial lung associations across the country, we teach people with asthma that when they're experiencing an attack, they should use their rescue inhaler. If the inhaler doesn't work, which can happen during an attack, they should call 911 and wait for the ambulance to arrive. Obviously, however, this is not an option on an airplane. By the time the flight lands, the person suffering the attack may already be in severe distress or even dead.

So, what do we tell those with respiratory disease who must travel?

If you have asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and must travel, check with the airline to try to get on a pet-free flight, take your medications regularly and follow your asthma/COPD action plan. Take your rescue inhaler 20 minutes before boarding the plane. Be sure to talk to your doctor before travelling - he or she may adjust your medications for the flight.

Finally, ALWAYS carry your medications on board with you - never pack them in your checked baggage.

This issue is serious, and affects the health of both air travellers and crew. The ultimate protection would be action by Parliament.

Kenneth Maybee is chair of environmental issues for the Canadian Lung Association.

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