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Two Common Pathogens Can Survive for Days on Surfaces in Airplanes

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Girl in seat on commercial airplane (foilman/flickr).

Girl in seat on commercial airplane (foilman/flickr).

If you’re traveling by air on your summer vacation, you may want to think twice about what surfaces you touch inside the airplane cabin. Or better yet, you may want to drive.

Disease-causing bacteria can linger for days on surfaces in airplane cabins, according to new research results from Auburn University, Alabama. The researchers obtained common materials from the airplane cabin of a major airline: an armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth and seat leather. They tested how long bacteria could survive on these surfaces under the standard airplane cabin conditions of low humidity and room temperature when no cleaning procedures were used.

Specifically, they studied the survivability of two common pathogens: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7. They found that MRSA lasted the longest on material from the seat-back pocket, surviving for 7 days. In contrast, E. coli O157:H7 lasted the longest on the armrest material, surviving for 4 days.

Staph skin infections, including MRSA, generally start as small red bumps that often resemble spider bites but these can quickly turn into deep, painful abscesses. Different types of staph bacteria are commonly found on the skin or in the nose of about 30% of the U.S. population, while only 2% of the population are asymptomatic carriers of MRSA. You can get MRSA through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected wound or by sharing equipment that has touched infected skin. However, these staph bacteria are generally harmless unless they enter the body through a cut or wound, so doctors recommend that you keep wounds covered with dry, clean bandages until healed.

E. coli O157:H7 is a major health problem that affects over 70,000 Americans per year. It causes nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, fever and bloody diarrhea. The infection can be spread from person to person by fecal contamination, but it usually comes from eating food contaminated with animal or human waste. Doctors recommend eating only well cooked foods, particularly hamburger, and drinking treated pasteurized fluids.

Bacteria are more likely to transfer onto skin from non-porous surfaces, like airplane armrests and tray tables.

However, MRSA and E. coli O157:H7 are not the most commonly found pathogens on airplanes based on past research studies. For instance, other researchers analyzed samples of 61 commercial airplane air filters to identify all the bacteria present.

“There have been sequencing studies examining the HEPA filters. And MRSA and E. coli are not the dominant organisms there,” explained graduate student Kiril Vaglenov at a press conference. “But we have to remember that MRSA are often found in humans. So there is a possibility that these pathogens would actually be present in an airplane.”

In addition to testing whether MRSA and E. coli O157:H7 could survive the environmental conditions of the airplane, the University of Auborn researchers also investigated how easily the pathogens could be transferred from each surface onto skin.

“You can divide these surfaces into porous and non-porous surfaces. And the porous surfaces will protect the bacteria more,” said James Barbaree, primary investigator of the study, at the press conference.

They found that the bacteria live longer on the porous surfaces like seat-back pocket fabric, but these porous surfaces are less likely to transfer to humans via surface contact. Bacteria are more likely to transfer onto skin from non-porous surfaces, like airplane armrests and tray tables. This is good news for air travelers, since non-porous surfaces are easier to disinfect.

The study was not meant to scare people about the risk. Instead, the investigators wanted to identify potential pathogens and establish a baseline. Their next research challenge is to look at how to eliminate potential pathogens or at least reduce the risk of pathogen transfer from all airplane surfaces.

“We want to look at disinfectant procedures,” said Barbaree at the press conference. “We also want to see if we can put antibacterial compounds into some of the surfaces to try to minimize the existence of the organisms on airplanes.”

Meanwhile, good hygiene is the best way to protect yourself against germs while traveling: cleaning all surfaces with antibacterial wipes, using hand sanitizer after touching surfaces, and washing your hands frequently.

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About the Author ()

Jennifer Huber is a medical imaging scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with more than 20 years of experience in academic science writing. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California Santa Barbara. She is also a freelance science writer, editor and blogger, as well as a science-writing instructor for the University of California Berkeley Extension. Jennifer has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of her life and she frequently enjoys the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.