People worry about the air inside a plane, but the real problems are elsewhere: the chair upholstery, the tray table, the armrests, and the toilet handle. Dangerous bacteria can live on those surfaces for up to a week, a team of microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University in Alabama reported after a two-year study.
Tray tables had the highest levels of bacteria, the team found.
The researchers didn’t actually test planes. Instead, they asked Delta Airlines for samples of six different materials commonly used on planes, including a plastic tray table, a metal toilet flush, the cloth used in seat pockets, a plastic window shade, a rubber armrest, and seat leather used in upgraded seats.
Next they applied two types of bacteria, E. coli and staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) to the six surfaces, recreated the humidity and temperature normally inside the cabin and watched for results. E. coli, known for causing illness when consumed in food, survived for 96 hours on an armrest. MRSA, a type of antibiotic resistant staph bacteria which can cause skin and other infections, survived for 168 hours on material from a seat back packet.
That doesn’t mean you must stay away from air travel. Both of these bacteria are common in our environment and don’t necessarily make you sick when you encounter them. MRSA can linger much longer on other surfaces. Also, the low humidity on airplanes makes it harder for many germs to survive.
Airlines do clean the planes, but the government doesn’t regulate how often or inspect the planes. Industry watchers report a rule of thumb to wipe down an aircraft completely after every 30 days of service or 100 flying hours. Many airlines wipe down seats and tray tables whenever a plane spends a night on ground. This means that a plane is cleanest on early-morning flights and dirtiest during red-eyes.
The team plans to study how long tuberculosis bacteria can survive in airplane conditions and the best way to keep plane travel sanitary, perhaps by incorporating anti-bacterial materials into the surfaces.
Meanwhile, you can protect yourself. Some simple strategies:
June 08, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN