October 19, 2018

New Research Shows E. coli Survives in Airplanes for Weeks

A two-year study conducted at Auburn University has found that pathogenic bacteria survives on surfaces in commercial airplanes for up to a week. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

E coli bacteriaThe study was funded through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center. The government wanted to find out how long E. coli O157:H7 and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, would survive on surfaces under average conditions. An airline carrier gave researchers material from armrests, plastic tray tables, seat-pocket cloth, window shades, and metal toilet buttons.

The scientists simulated the same temperature and humidity levels found during commercial flights and tested the materials for bacteria. MRSA survived for 168 hours on material from the seat-back pocket. And E. coli O157:H7 survived for 96 hours on material from the armrest.

Kirl Vaglenov, lead author of the study said in a statement, “our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on these surfaces, particularly the porous material such as armrests and seat-pockets. Air travelers should be aware of the risk of catching or spreading a disease to other passengers and practice good personal hygiene.”

Researchers want to help airlines discover effective disinfecting procedures, as well as test other materials for use in airplanes that have antimicrobial properties. Food safety attorney Fred Pritzker said, “perhaps airlines should hand out packets of antiseptic to passengers, have antiseptic gel dispensers in the plane or on the jetway, or require brief warning messages about possible bacterial contamination.”

Food Poisoning Bulletin told you about the risk of bacteria on fomites, the inanimate objects and surfaces that can carry bacteria, a few years ago. Non-porous surfaces such as tray tables and seats can transmit bacteria much more easily than porous surfaces such as paper towels because porous surfaces can trap bacteria.

To reduce risk of infection when you are on a plane, always wash your hands thoroughly before eating anything served to you on an airline, or touching any surface such as the seat-back pocket or tray table. Think about using antiseptic wipes to clean off the tray table before you use it. And always be aware, when you travel, of the risks of foodborne illness.

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