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Dangerous Bacteria in Planes, Do You Need a Hazmat Suit?

dangerous bacteria in planes

As if cramped seating and bad food were not enough, the presence of dangerous bacteria in planes is an additional concern for passangers. A new study has found that deadly bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and E. coli O157:H7 can linger in airplane cabins for as long as one week.

I don’t know about you, but between the security lines, delayed flights, lack of leg room, and crying babies, airplane travel has lost all of its charm for me. Although I have long known that bacteria and other germs can linger in airplane cabins, this latest research should give every air traveler reason to pause.

According to Kiril Vaglenov, one of the Auburn University team members who presented the information at the American Society for Microbiology meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, the data gathered by the research team is an initial step in tackling the problem of harmful bacteria in airline cabins. Here is what the team did.

  • Collected six different surfaces commonly found in airplanes--armrest, window shade, seat pocket cloth, leather, metal toilet button, and the plastic tray table—from one major airline
  • Evaluated the ability of MRSA and E. coli O157:H7 to survive on these surfaces under typical conditions (including humidity and temperature) found on an airline

Here’s what they found:

  • MRSA survived a total of 168 hours on seat back pocket material
  • E. coli O157:H7 survived 96 hours on the armrest material

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The ability of these disease-causing bacteria to survive was “independent of the type of simulated body fluid present,” according to Vaglenov.

What airplane passengers should do
Should you don a hazmat suit every time you travel by plane? That won’t be necessary, but there are some steps you can take to help prevent potential infection.

  • Wash your hands before you get on the plane, during your flight, and after you get off the plane. The number of times you wash your hands will depend on the length of your flight and how often you touch the offending surfaces.
  • Bring along and use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. You can use this method to replace hand washing.
  • Do not touch your hands to your mouth or face
  • Skip the coffee and tea and only accept bottled water
  • Skip the alcohol
  • Bring your own reading materials and pass up the magazines in the seat pocket
  • Bring your own food and snacks
  • Bring your own sweater if you tend to get cold and pass up the airplane blanket
  • Always wash your hands thoroughly after using the airplane toilet
  • Bring along a clean cloth to cover your tray table. You will look like you are having a picnic!
  • Do everyone a favor and don’t travel if you are ill
  • Stay well hydrated before, during, and after your flight

It is not uncommon to hear reports of people contracting illnesses after flying in an airplane. Those illnesses can range from cases of norovirus to tuberculosis, measles, and various types of flu.

Researchers are planning to further investigate how to better test and disinfect surfaces in airplanes to reduce the chances of infection. For now, however, there are steps you can take to protect yourself against the dangerous bacteria in planes.

American Society of Microbiology