Germs are everywhere. There's a reason most supermarkets now provide anti-bacterial hand wipes when you walk through the door.
But public spaces that are also enclosed spaces, such as an airliner cabin, can be a particularly rich environment for germs to thrive. Now there's a new scientific report finding disease-causing bacterial can live on the surfaces found in airline 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," said Kiril Vaglenov, an Auburn University researcher. "This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem."
Vaglenov presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology.
Should you worry?
But how much of a concern is this? Just because the bacteria is present, does it mean that it can be passed on to another person? In many cases, yes.
The research team looked at two common pathogens – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7 – and tested their ability to survive on surfaces in an airline cabin under normal flight conditions.
The scientists obtained 6 types of material from an actual jetliner – an armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather. Next they placed them in a lab and subjected them to the bacteria, exposing them to typical airplane conditions.
The discovered that MRSA was the more hardy of the bacteria, lasing 168 hours when placed on material from the seat-back pocket. When applied to the armrest, the E. coli bacteria lasted 96 hours.
Passing it on...and on
That means an ill passenger can infect perhaps dozens of others who sit in that same seat over the next several days. Vaglenov says the bacteria pose a significant risk just through skin contact.
"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," he said.
The research confirms what many germ-conscious travelers have long suspected. And it turns out MRSA and E. coli aren't the only nasty bugs lurking at 30,000 feet.
In 2012 a Dallas TV station randomly swabbed surfaces on a commercial airliner and reported the presence of 3,000 germs.
The worst places for germs, the station reported, were in the seatback pocket and the bathroom.
Is there any way to fly and not get sick. Well, yes. People do it every day. But then, they may be pushing their luck.
You might improve your odds by following the advice of one germ-o-phobe interviewed by The New York Times. His pre-flight checklist includes wiping down the cushions, armrests and tray table. He won't touch a magazine in the seatback pocket and avoids the restroom at all costs.
Don't want to appear obsessive/compulsive to your fellow passengers? At the very least, using hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial wipes during the flight – and especially before eating and after you disembark, might keep you a little healthier.