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Travel

Germs on a Plane

If you’re planning a summer trip that involves air travel, be sure to bring along plenty of hand sanitizer. According to data presented in May 2014 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, disease-causing bacteria can linger on surfaces in airplane cabins for up to a week.

A release from the society quotes researcher Kiril Vaglenov of Auburn University in Alabama as saying, “Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins. This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem.”

In order for disease-causing bacteria to be transmitted from a cabin surface to a person, it must survive the environmental conditions in the airplane. In the study, Vaglenov and his colleagues tested the ability of two pathogens, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7, to survive on armrests, plastic tray tables, metal toilet buttons, window shades, cloth seat pockets, and leather surfaces in places. The team inoculated samples of these tiems with the bacteria and exposed the test items to typical airplane conditions.

MRSA lasted longest on material from the seat-back pocket, at 168 hours. That’s seven days, which is a full week. E. coli O157:H7 survived longest on the material from the armrest, at 96 hours. That’s four days.
The release quotes Vaglenov as saying, “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.”

This 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,” says Vaglenov.

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

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