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Deadly germs can live in aircraft cabins for a week

By Jessica Firger / CBS News 1:10 PM May 20, 2014

Some of the most harmful and resilient bacteria on airplanes aren’t necessarily the ones from the sneezing old lady sitting next to you. They’re the germs that live on the upholstery of the chair, the tray table where the flight attendant places your lunch and on the metal buttons you press to move your seat or flush the toilet, according to new research just presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual meeting.

The researchers found bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli can live for up to a week on airplanes that aren’t sufficiently cleaned. The study was partially funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

For the study, a team of microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University in Alabama, simulated travel in the friendly skies. They obtained various parts of an aircraft cabin — seats, upholstery and leather, metal items such as the toilet flusher button, armrests, window shades — in order to test the life of various types of bacteria and see how long it could survive on those surfaces.

All together researchers tested six different types of bacteria. They found MRSA could last for up to 168 hours on the back pocket of an airplane chair, while E. coli survived on average for about 96 hours on the material from the armrest. Experts say the dry air found in airplanes means they’re an especially hospitable place for bacteria to live.

Several frequent flyers told CBS News it makes sense.

“I’m not surprised. I try not to focus on that stuff otherwise I wouldn’t go anywhere,” passenger Anneke Hiatt told CBS News.

Health experts recommend passengers always carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it frequently. Many germ-conscious travelers such as David Urban already take precautions to remain as germ-free as possible.

“I just make sure to wash my hands, I don’t touch my face, my mouth my nose,” Urban told CBS News.

In the future, the researchers plan to study the effectiveness of various methods for cleaning and disinfecting airplane surfaces and test out other materials that may have antimicrobial properties, which could help limit the presence of bacteria in aircraft cabins.


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