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Travel reporter Douglas Wright recently wrote for CNN that aircraft passenger cabins are not quite the paragons of purity and of cleanliness we want to believe. In fact they’re downright dirty, from a public health standpoint. Never mind snakes on a plane, passenger aircraft are grubby germinators of petri-dish proportions.
In summary and in case you don’t want to know too much because the devil is in the details, he notes the following:
• Don't wash your hands after using the airplane bathroom, use the sanitizer instead
• Be very wary of air-craft water
• Buy bottled water for onboard refreshment and don't use ice cubes in your drink, and
• To avoid catching the cold or flu, don't stash things in the seat pocket
There are two general problems; airplanes are not cleaned on a sufficiently thorough and frequent basis; and, the other reality which is all too common these days, planes fly full. So here we go, chocks away, as we accelerate through the airspace and learn about aeronautical atrocities.
Germ Zone # 1 – Water, good old ‘aitch too oh
Water can harbor E. coli, a common culprit behind stomach cramps.
Apparently airplane water has been under review by the EPA for traces of E. coli for six years. This sounds a little murky to me. In 2004 a random sampling of 327 domestic and international aircraft caused a stir when some water samples tested positive for E. coli, one strain of which is the leading cause of food poisoning in the US. Coffee and tea are brewed on board with such water and don't typically reach hot enough temperatures to kill E. coli. When bottled water runs out, some planes have been known to fill fliers' glasses from the tank. One British Airways crew member confessed that, in those cases, the crew first has to wait for any cloudy "floating stuff" to settle out. Whuh, excuse me, what did you just say, cloudy “floating stuff”? Anything cloudy and floating is supposed to be outside of the plane, and it’s white and fluffy. Having lived in the Caribbean for 15 years, if you can’t see your toes in the water, you don’t go in the sea. I think the same applies here.
Also onboard tanks are small so planes sometimes refill at foreign airports, with dodgy water standards (Delhi belly anyone?). But encouragingly, water quality and control are improving. From 2005 to 2008, only 3.6 percent of samples tested positive for coli-form bacteria, of which only a small fraction tested positive for E. coli. And in October 2011, the EPA's Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, with more standardized, stringent disinfection and inspection regulations, will go into effect.
Tip: Buy bottled water to bring on board. If you must, only order, sodas, juices and other prepackaged liquids, hold the ice, from the trolley dolly. Whilst ice cubes are usually supplied by an outside supplier, some large planes may have their own ice-making capability which is, you’ve guessed, supplied by the plane’s internal tank water.
Germ Zone #2 - Seat pocket in front of you
The home of Cold and Influenza A, B, and C viruses. Still pleased to be flying?
According to research, reaching into that front pocket is like rummaging around in a stranger’s purse, with its detritus of used tissues and whatever. Toenail clippings and old French fries have been found in seat pockets. Cold and ‘flu viruses can survive for hours on fabric and tissues, and even longer (up to 48 hours) on nonporous surfaces like plastic and metal. That glossy flight magazine may be a carrier, and after wiping your nose perhaps, casually flicking through the pages, perhaps licking your fingers as you go, you have possibly left a nice little unwanted guest for the next passenger, and nobody knows. Ick.
Solution: Store your in-flight goodies in a small carry-on bag to avoid seat-pocket scuz.
Germ Zone # 3- The ubiquitous tray table
Home of MRSA, the Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). Can be fatal when contracted, it kills an estimated 20,000 Americans annually. Ouch!
Flight attendants have seen it all on the tray table, from parents changing dirty diapers to boogers underneath. In 2007, University of Arizona researcher Jonathan Sexton tested tray tables from three major airliners, and an alarming 60 percent tested positive for the superbug. That's quite a revelation compared to the 11 percent of similar such testing performed on the New York subway.
Tip: Use disinfectant wipes to clean the tray table before and after use, and never eat directly off the surface. Lysol disinfecting wipes is a suggested option. Also, protect any cuts with Band-Aids (sticking-plaster in the UK), since the most common way of contracting an MRSA infection is through open skin. Ugh.
Germ Zone # 4 – Airline food
A potential source of Listeria, a microbe known to cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis.
Ah yes, airlines meals have long been the butt of jokes and a bad reputation for consisting of bland, barely identifiable dishes. In 2009, the airline toy meals made headlines when FDA inspections of the world’s largest airplane caterer, LSG Sky Chefs, found the kitchens crawling with roaches and employees handling the food with bare hands or unwashed gloves. Test samples also found traces of LiSteria monocytoGenes, which can cause gastrointestinal illness and meningitis, as well as cervical infection in pregnant women. The likelihood of contracting illness from the microbe is very low, though it should be noted that one fifth of the 2,500 annual cases are fatal. LSG Sky Chefs, to its credit, passed the FDA's follow-up inspection in January 2010.
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Solution: If you're concerned, eat beforehand and bring your own snacks onto the plane. But please no curries and no pizza, unless you’re prepared to share.
Germ Zone # 5 - Airplane Pillow and Blankets
Now, this is a big surprise folks. Those soft fluffy furnishings can cause pneumonia and infections.
A 2007 investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that airlines cleaned their blankets every five to 30 days. Don’t forget though, in a period of six days that could easily be two to three domestic flights, and amount to 12 to 18 passengers all dribbling and drooling over the blanket. Why do you think they use dark colors. So, a plastic wrapped blanket means just that. It’s a blanket wrapped in plastic. Who said it had to be clean? In 2000 the Union of Needle-trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (workers of the world UNITE!) accused a major supplier of repackaging pillows and blankets without cleaning them properly. Phew, what’s that smell? No, we’re not in New Jersey no more Toto.
Since then, some airlines such as Southwest and Alaska Airlines have removed pillows and blankets completely, while JetBlue, US Airways and American now charge for them. Ah, that’s rich; do they come with a guarantee of freshness or your money back?
Tip: it’s not the biggest bug-bear on the plane, as there have been no documented reports linking airlines to these infections. But you should consider bringing your own thermal protection such as a travel pillow and compact blanket. And perhaps dare I say it, that other butt of jokes, a Snuggie! But, who wants to walk around the plane like a monk wearing a technicolor dreamcoat?
Germ Zone #6 - Airplane Lavatory
Here we are, we’ve finally arrived at the ultimate all-you-can-eat open buffet of bacteria such as E. coli or fecal bacteria. Shall I go on?
First problem, that door handle, did you wash your hands thoroughly? If you didn’t...why should anyone else? Second problem, remember that cloudy tank water described above? The sink water comes from the same source. Let’s hope that Maintenance never reverses that flow. Mind you, the coffee might taste better. And lastly that somehow reassuring hydraulic suction of the thunder-box, doesn't exactly help the situation, as it can spray water and release potential germs into the air. In fact, the CDC (Center for Disease Control, in Atlanta) cited the aircraft lavatory as a major danger area for the spread of disease during the H1N1 flu and SARS epidemics. Who knew?
Tip: Use a paper towel to close the toilet lid before flushing, skip the sink and reach for hand sanitizer.
The next time I see you on an aircraft you’ll recognize me. I’ll be the one dressed in a suit...a Hazmat suit. So you’ll excuse me if we don’t shake hands or bump elbows.
What about the recycled air you ask? I think we’ll save that for another day, you need time to digest the above!