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How a salad bought at Logan Airport started an effort to require EpiPens on airplanes

Some Massachusetts lawmakers have voiced support for a bill requiring airlines to carry EpiPens after a Harvard University student’s allergic reaction onboard a Southwest Airlines flight.
Some Massachusetts lawmakers have voiced support for a bill requiring airlines to carry EpiPens after a Harvard University student’s allergic reaction onboard a Southwest Airlines flight.(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/File)

Alexa Jordan, who had just completed her freshman year at Harvard, boarded a flight home to Chicago in May when she took a bite of a salad purchased at Logan Airport.

“My throat started tingling and then my throat started closing,” said Jordan, who believes the salad had been cross-contaminated with nuts. “I was having all of the symptoms of an anaphylaxis attack.”

Jordan said flight attendants did not offer her an epinephrine auto-injector — or EpiPen — during her allergy attack, but she had her own.

Her incident led Robert Houton to launch last week the Coalition for Lifesaving Epinephrine Auto-injector Rights, or CLEAR, a group that advocates for commercial flights to be required to carry EpiPens.

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The Federal Aviation Administration requires that airline medical kits include injectable epinephrine, but they do not have to carry auto-injectors, which allow users to administer the correct dosage of medicine used to tackle allergic reactions.

Houton — a Washington, D.C., lobbyist — said his 9-year-old daughter has the “highest allergy protein levels” and once he learned about Jordan’s story, he knew he wanted to help.

“I immediately knew right away that I wanted to be involved,” Houton said, adding he has been reaching out to “about two dozen companies” and “stakeholder groups” to build a coalition in support of the effort.

The Hill, a Capitol Hill publication, first reported on CLEAR’s efforts last week. NBC Chicago first reported Jordan’s account in June.

The most recent effort to require EpiPens on airplanes came in 2015, but it went nowhere on Capitol Hill. The bill would have required each aircraft to carry at least two packs of EpiPens, replace them after use or expiration, and train flight attendants how to detect signs of an allergy attack and direct them how to use the auto-injectors.

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CLEAR is advocating for a similar bill this Congress, although it has yet to be introduced.

Jordan, in an interview, said the lack of training among the flight attendants was what upset her the most.

“I don’t feel angry at Southwest or personally at the flight attendants,” Jordan said. “What really upset me was their lack of training.”

Southwest Airlines offered a different account of what happened onboard.

Chris Mainz, senior manager of public relations at the airline, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that flight attendants on board offered to “call for a medical professional onboard” and offered Jordan an EpiPen, but she refused it.

“While the Customer informed our Flight Attendants that she had her own EpiPen, our Flight Attendants advised the Customer that Southwest had an EpiPen onboard and offered it to her,” Mainz wrote. “However, the Customer refused the EpiPen the Flight Attendants offered.”

Jordan said flight attendants “told her in passing” as she disembarked in Chicago that they had EpiPens, but Jordan said they only had vials of the drug and not auto-injectors. She added that a medical professional would need to distribute the “correct amount” of the medication, but auto-injectors eliminate that step.

Mainz said that, according to Southwest’s reports, flight attendants did have an auto-injector on the plane and Jordan “stated she had her own and did not need it.”

Some members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation expressed support for a measure if taken up on Capitol Hill.

“Auto-injection EpiPens seem like a commonsense addition to the medical kits that aircraft carry, especially if the crew is not trained or comfortable administering the epipens,” wrote Tim Biba, a spokesman for Salem Congressman Seth Moulton, in an e-mail Tuesday.

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“Every day, people with life threatening allergies are left vulnerable in the confines of an aircraft. Ensuring airlines are taking into consideration the needs of their most sensitive passengers is paramount,” said Senator Edward Markey of Malden in a statement sent by a spokeswoman.

A spokeswoman for Representative Katherine Clark — who represents most of Harvard’s campus in Cambridge — did not respond to multiple requests for comment. An aide to Representative Ayanna Pressley, who also serves parts of Cambridge, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Senator Elizabeth Warren, who lives in Cambridge, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Representative Bill Keating of Bourne said he “would certainly support increasing access to epinephrine, especially in shared, enclosed spaces like airplanes.”

Jordan said she hopes that some sort of legislation can get through Congress and that her ordeal can help others.

“The most important thing to me is that my bad experience and terrifying experience will be able to impact the lives of others,” Jordan said.


Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AidanRyanNH.