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"Red Spots" among Flight Attendants

This bright yellow life vest and oxygen mask are souvenirs from the “Red Spots” Epi-Aid. Donated by Kathy Rauch, 1995, 1995.136.1, CDCM Collection

This bright yellow life vest and oxygen mask are souvenirs from the “Red Spots” Epi-Aid. Donated by Kathy Rauch, 1995, 1995.136.1, CDCM Collection

This bright yellow life vest and oxygen mask are souvenirs from the "Red Spots" Epi-Aid.

In the first three months of 1980, CDC's then Bureau of Epidemiology and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated episodes of red spots appearing on the skin of flight attendants during various Eastern Airlines flights. Airline personnel had investigated the ventilation systems, cleaning materials and procedures, concluding all were normal. Chemical tests on clinical specimens for the presence of blood were negative.

Bacteriological tests were negative. Review of 132 cases occurring in January and February:

  • 96% occurred on flights between New York and Miami.
  • 90% occurred on a single type of aircraft.
  • 91 flight attendants had been affected.

Observations of standard work practices and procedures of flight attendants revealed that the red spots were caused by red ink flaking off the life vests. The vests used for demonstrations were not actually functional and were labelled "Demo Only" with ink containing a litholrubine chrome molybdate orange pigment. When the vests were demonstrated, the red ink areas came into close contact with the face, necks, and hands of the demonstrators. Although some reports mentioned burning, nausea, and headache in association with spots, most reports involved only the occurrence of bright red spots that could be wiped or washed off. When the implicated vests were removed from all Eastern Airlines planes, the epidemic ended.

  • Page last reviewed: January 9, 2015
  • Page last updated: January 9, 2015
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