Photo by Suzanne Clements. Design by Erik Mace for Yahoo Travel.
It’s enough to make you want to wear a hazmat suit on your next flight.
The website Travelmath is making news with a new study on the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of airplanes and airports. The site sent a microbiologist to swab and analyze samples from various locations in five airports and four flights to analyze the bacterial presence on each surface. The study found that airports and airplanes generally are dirtier than your home. Some of them are even dirtier than your average bathroom!
“You don’t want to think about these things; you’ll have nightmares,” Dr. Michael Schmidt, a professor and vice chair at the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, tells Yahoo Travel. Although he wasn’t the microbiologist who collected the Travelmath data, he’s not surprised by the findings.
Then there’s another recent study at Auburn University that found that armrests, tray tables, and even seatback pockets can become long-term residences for bacteria — especially the antibiotic-resistant staph MRSA as well as E. coli.
A microbiologist working on a study for Travelmath found airplanes can be petri dishes for bacteria. (Photo: iStock)
“E. coli is fecal and if you don’t rigorously wash your hands, it’s easily transferred after attending to the restroom activity,” Schmidt says. He adds that we’re leaving all kinds of nasty microbes — from our unwashed hands and the millions of dead skin cells we shed, on which bacteria likes to feed — on airplane surfaces, and we’re constantly reintroducing the nastiness to our bodies.
“We’re literally inoculating ourselves with our hands, whether we’re rubbing our eyes scratching our nose, moving the microbes from our seat to our mouths,” he says.
WATCH: Where’s the Dirtiest Place on an Airplane?
Plus, it’s not as if planes are getting cleaned that often. “The planes are constantly in motion and they typically only clean them on a fixed schedule,” Schmidt says. “It’s dependent upon the airline itself as to how often they vacuum the seats and vacuum the plane.”
Related: Stay Healthy on Your Next Flight: Five Easy Tips
No one’s saying this is an airborne health hazard, nor is anyone suggesting you go through an entire flight without touching anything. Still, some parts of an airplane are dirtier than others, and touching them — or worse, touching them before touching our eyes, mouths, noses or the food we’re eating — can lead to illness. So here are 10 parts of an airplane you might want to think twice about touching (in no particular order):
1.) Tray Tables
Meet the dirtiest part of an airplane. And you eat off it! (Photo: iStock)
Travelmath’s study finds the plastic tray tables where we eat our food are the dirtiest part of the airplane, by far. Travelmath’s microbiologist found these seatback tray tables house 2,155 colony-forming-units (CFU)/square inch.
Schmidt is not surprised. “The only thing that bacteria love better than human skin is plastic,” he says. “They love to attach to plastic.” Schmidt says the problem is the textured, pourous plastic you see on tray tables. That texture helps keep your cup of Diet Coke from sliding across the table but, according to Schmidt, it’s also “creating mountain ranges where the microbes can attach themselves.“
And there are lots of microbes that your tray catches. All those sugary soft drinks and juices that get spilled on the tray table throughout the day, not to mention the glue used to hold the ads some airlines are placing on tray tables, give bacteria a place to play and feed. “Microbes can make a living off the gunk that’s on the tray table,” Schmidt says.
And of course, there are parents who use the tray tables to hold their babies’ dirty diapers. “I’ve witnessed that,” laughs Schmidt. “I sort of just roll my shoulders and say, ‘Thank God I remembered the hand sanitizer.’”
You might want to think about that the next time you consider eating peanuts right from the tray table.
The lavatory is not as dirty as you might think (Photo: iStock)
Surprisingly, these aren’t nearly as bad as tray tables. Travelmath found that lavatory flush buttons had 265 CFU/sq. in. — far below the tray tables’ 2,155. And bathroom stall locks, which you’d expect to be filthy, come in at a low 70 CFU/sq. in.
Part of that is due to care. Bathrooms in airports and planes generally are cleaned more often and more regularly than your average plane’s tray tables (which usually get just a once-over at the end of a day of carrying hundreds of fliers).
But Schmidt says it’s also a matter of design. He notes that airplane lavatory flush buttons tend to be made of smooth plastic, as opposed to the bacteria-catching plastic ridges you find in tray tables. “Those press buttons are often smoothed; they don’t have that texturized plastic,” says Schmidt. Better yet, he says, is the aluminum used on the more traditional toilet handles, where it’s harder for microbes to attach. Maybe we should start eating in the bathroom?
3.) Overhead air vents
Microbes don’t like it here. (Photo: iStock)
Travelmath found these to be slightly dirtier than toilet handles: 285 CFU/sq. in. Generally speaking, though, the overhead air vents aren’t very hospitable to bacteria. “You’re turning on the air and that’s going to dehydrate the microbe,” says Schmidt.
You have to touch these for your own safety, but you may want to clean your hands afterwards. (Photo: iStock)
Travelmath’s study found 230 CFU/sq. in. on seatbelt buckles. “The seatbelt [buckle] is smooth,” he says. So just like aluminum toilet handles, the metal buckle is slightly harder for microbes to attach itself to. The actual fabric belt, though, is another story. “The seatbelt itself is porous, so the microbes can literally live in between the fibers on the debris of the patients’ skin.”
5.) Seat back pockets
Ever wonder how often those handy pockets where you stuff your magazines get cleaned? (Photo: iStock)
No one talks about this, but these pockets where airlines put their safety cards and in-flight magazine are another unexpectedly gnarly part of the plane. Travelmath didn’t look at seat back pockets but Auburn University’s study on airplane infects did; it found MRSA can live for 168 hours on a cloth seat back pocket.
Schmidt says it’s no wonder these seat back pockets can get so nasty. “Everybody puts their crap in there,” he says. Passengers often leave uneaten candy bars, nuts, crackers — food that often leaves crumbs — into the seat backs. “Microbes will go wherever there’s crumbs,” Schmidt notes.
6.) Window shades
The gorgeous view, and what might be crawling on the shades, are a good reason to leave the window shades right where they are. (Photo: iStock)
Also potential germ farms. The Auburn study found MRSA can live for 120 hours on the window shade (about as long as it can last on a tray table). Like tray tables, window shades tend to be made of porous materials. “Microbes attach to it,” Schmidt says.
7.) The floor
No eating off the floor. (Photo: iStock)
The prime place for all our dead cells to fall and accumulate. “We’ve created the flip-flop generation,” says Schmidt, “and flip flops are an avenue to dump [dead skin cells] in the environment.” So if you drop a piece of food on the floor, an airplane might be a good place to suspend “The Five-Second Rule.”
8.) Your luggage
You luggage might be packing more than your clothes. (Photo: iStock)
A way to take all the filth from your travels with you. According to a study cited in The Daily Mail, luggage comes into contact with up to 80 million bacteria before it and you reach your destination. How do these items get so dirty? “Basically rolling down the street,” says Schmidt. And when we roll suitcases from the filthy sidewalks onto the airplane, whose floor is teeming with dead skin cells from passengers, the problem compounds. Says Schmidt, “Luggage is actually a vehicle to move the microbes among the airplane.”
9.) Blankets and pillow
The pillow and blanket may have cleanliness issues, but you might be too tired to care. (Photo: iStock)
Just like other items that contain porous fibers that may or may not be cleaned regularly, blankets and pillows are questionable. "They are a vehicle to transmit microbes,” Schmidt says.
10.) In-flight entertainment systems
Touching this might be risky — and not just because it might be showing a Tyler Perry movie. (Photo: iStock)
People put their grubby hands all over in-flight entertainment systems, especially touchscreens and remote controls. “The remote control that come out of the armest, that’s a toxic waste site as well,” jokes Schmidt.
Now that you’re freaked out, there is some good news. For one, there’s a natural protection against all these airborne germs: your own body. “When you’re healthy, you don’t really have to concern yourself all that much because your immune system is working well,” Schmidt says. “This is why we’re not all sick and dying all the time. It’s because we put everything in our mouths [as children] and we became immune or we acquired tolerance towards these offenders. And that’s why even though there are these horrible concentrations of bacteria on planes, as long as we’re relatively healthy, we can protect ourselves if we just practice simple measures like hand hygiene.”
And that brings up the best thing you can do to protect yourself from airplane nastiness: washing and sanitizing your hands.
The best defense: washing your hands. (Photo: iStock)
“I’m one of the lucky people that doesn’t get sick on planes,” Schmidt says. “And it’s principally because I practice what my mother taught me — to always wash my hands before I eat. It’s really as simple as that."
Schmidt says he also brings alcohol-based hand sanitizer with him on flights; that way, when he washes his hands in the bathroom, and recontaminates them by closing the bathroom door, buckling his seatbelt and lowering the tray table, he can give his hands a brief spritz of sanitizer before eating or touching his face.
"We know the alcohol on the hand gel is at 66% ethanol and that’s sufficient to inactivate the microboes on your hands,” says Schmidt.
A good back-up plan: an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. (Photo: iStock)
Drinking water helps, too. “When you become dehydrated, your immune system isn’t acting as well,” says Schmidt.
So the yucky stuff on planes are just one of the many necessary evils we encounter when flying. But don’t let it keep you from flying. Just be smart about it.
“The take-home message is wash your hands early and often,” says Schmidt. “And your likelihood of getting sick on a plane will be directly proportional to how well you practice hand hygiene.” And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the hazmat suit.
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