Germs at 20,000 Feet

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By Collin Myers, Technical Writer

Around this time last summer, some friends and I were eagerly anticipating a two week European vacation. At that point I’d never travelled outside the USA, but couldn’t wait to land in Frankfurt and leave all my troubles and stresses thousands of miles behind me across the Atlantic. Shortly before takeoff, as the plane glided around the runways of JFK, the pilot’s voice crackled on the loudspeaker, alerting passengers of a system malfunction with the plane’s wheels. We began backtracking to our terminal so the mechanics could fix the problem. After a half hour delay, the plane rolled out to the runway again, preparing for takeoff.

The overhead lights flickered. The cabin turned dark, as if there had been a power outage. Once again the pilot’s voice sounded off: “Ladies and gentlemen, the problem has resurfaced, we’re going back in.??? A chorus of annoyed sighs and groans filled the cabin. I told my friend sitting next to me that there was some higher power at work, trying to prevent us from getting out of the country. And then suddenly the pilot made another announcement: the problem had apparently corrected itself, and we were clear for takeoff. I held my friend’s hand and told him, “Just in case we don’t ever make it to Europe, I want you to know, we’ve had a great run.???

Paranoid by our false starts at JFK, I began leering out the window at the plane’s wing, looking for malfunctions, oddities in the spoiler and aileron as we soared above the navy blur of the Atlantic Ocean. I wouldn’t feel safe again until I had set foot on solid ground.

But, based on recent reports, I should have been just as concerned with what was going on inside the plane, all around me, as much as some sort of possible mechanical failure in the plane’s engineering. A team of researchers from the University of Auburn recently presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), and claimed that airplane interiors are hotbeds for harmful germs and disease. The researchers found that when applied to various surfaces from Delta airline cabins, bacteria like E.coli survived up to four days on surfaces including armrests, tray tables, and toilet flushers. Another bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), was also tested, and survived up to seven days on the same surfaces. MRSA has recently been linked to incurable fatal infections, as it is becoming resistant to antibiotic treatments.

Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University, is more skeptical about these recent findings and called the study a bit too meticulous and obvious, given that if bacteria is placed in a controlled environment, it will indeed thrive. Schaffner, however, suggests that a more pressing issue for plane passengers are cold and flu viruses transmitted through luggage and carry-ons. Planes travel at high elevations where humidity levels are low, causing the nose leaving the human Mucociliary Clearance System vulnerable to harmful germs and bacteria.

The research conducted by the Auburn team also found that E. coli thrived particularly well in airplane bathrooms. Statistics show that an airplane bathroom is used at least fifty times by fifty different people per flight. Not even the friendly skies are immune to the suite of diseases, germs, and bacteria that can be spread by humans. Aside from attempting to thoroughly clean and sterilize cabins before and after each flight, ultimately the onus is on the passengers to take the necessary health precautions. Doctors recommend exercising good hygiene by washing hands, keeping hands away from the face and mouth, staying hydrated, and even suggest that passengers should shower or bathe as soon as possible after arriving at their destination.

Another method of reducing bacteria is to manufacture seats and upholstery with antimicrobial compounds. It was also recommended that passengers thoroughly wipe down their seats and surrounding surfaces before takeoff. So far there are no reports of E. coli or MRSA outbreaks on actual flights.

Humans aren’t alone in their ability to scale the globe aboard airplanes; germs and disease are just as well traveled as people, and use the same methods of transportation–planes, trains, and cargo ships. A perfect example is the recent spread of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). So far there have been two confirmed cases of MERS in the US, while the virus’s presence continues to increase in Saudi Arabia. One of the US patients experienced symptoms following a flight from Jeddah to London, the first stretch of a long trip that ended in Orlando, Florida. Airplanes transport a diverse conglomerate of people from various parts of the world, uniting them in a confined space for several hours, sharing the same air – and the same germs. This is another reason why so many viruses are prone to such rapid spreading. This day in age, with so many people from so many different parts of the world traveling every day, it’s nearly impossible for any new virus to remain isolated in one place. Germs and viruses are able to travel just as far and wide around the world as people, and use the same vessels in the process.

The flight back home had very few complications (not counting the hassle of security checkpoints and long lines in Frankfurt). I spent most of the flight in and out of sleep. As I nodded off, I heard several people yakking, coughing into their fists. It sounded as if an airborne virus had just swept through the cabin. I decided that as soon as I got home I would shower, take Vitamin C, B12, and drink a tall glass of orange juice, and go to sleep for a very long time, until the jet lag wore off. I wasn’t taking any chances. In the words of Dr. Schaffner, “We live in a germy world.???