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Planes Are Full of Infectious Diseases, Study Shows

You already knew that flying was dirty business. A new study confirms your air-travel nightmares and shows that scary germs thrive in airplane cabins, enduring for up to a week on some surfaces.

According to a report in the Washington Post, researchers at Auburn University conducted an experiment to see how long two harmful strains of bacteria, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli, could survive on surfaces in airplane cabins. The researchers coated armrests, tray tables, and the toilet-flush button—one of the last places on earth that I would touch with my bare hands—with pathogens in a lab environment with temperature and humidity levels similar to those of pressurized airplane cabins.  

The study showed that deadly germs prevail on planes. MRSA, a staph infection that’s resistant to common antibiotics, persisted for 168 hours on fabric seatback pockets. E. coli hung around for 96 hours on the armrests, 72 hours on the tray tables, and 48 hours on the flush button. Don’t touch these things with your hands.

A full week—168 hours—seems like an alarmingly prolonged time for germs to remain active on things in a public space. However, transmission rates on seatback pocket fabric were lower than those for non-porous surfaces, which is good. In other words, it’s easier to pick up pathogens from hard surfaces like tray tables and window shades than softer ones like fabric.

Flyers can take heart, perhaps, knowing that the study was conducted apart from any cleaning protocols normally carried out by airline personnel. No one attempted to clean any of the surfaces that researchers painted with pathogens. Cabins get surface sanitized pretty regularly, and, with most airlines, a more thorough cleaning happens about once a month.

“The take-home message is be careful about your hand hygiene and don’t travel while contagious or immune compromised,” said the lead study author, Kiril Vaglenov. Wash your hands. Smother yourself and everything around you with hand sanitizer. Consider full withdrawal from society.

Vaglenov also said, “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than being at the movie theater.” And with that I will never touch anything inside a movie theater ever again.

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