PhotoMany consumers dislike flying because they think it's unsanitary to be cooped up in a metal tube with a bunch of strangers for hours at a time.

Guess what? It's not just the strangers on the plane with you that can be a problem. It's also the ones who were there before you, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

Researchers say they've found that disease-causing bacteria, including MRSA and E. coli, can linger on surfaces commonly found in airplane cabins for days, even up to a week.

"Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins," says Kiril Vaglenov, of Auburn University who presented the data. "This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem."

Looking on the bright side, the research is laying the groundwork for important work to come.

"Our future plans include the exploration of effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin," said Vaglenov.

Surfaces studied

In their study Vaglenov and his colleagues tested the ability of two pathogens -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7 -- to survive on surfaces commonly found in airplanes.

They obtained six different types of material from a major airline carrier (armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather), inoculated them with the bacteria and exposed them to typical airplane conditions.

MRSA lasted longest (168 hours) on material from the seat-back pocket while E. coli O157:H7 survived longest (96 hours) on the material from the armrest.

"Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact," says Vaglenov.

They currently have ongoing trials with other human pathogens including the bacteria that cause tuberculosis.

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