It should come to no surprise to anyone that airports & airplanes are filthy. There are thousands upon on thousands of people crammed into a building or traveling through the air in metal tubes every day and their hands and fingers have been in lots of icky (and sometimes downright nasty) places and who knows when was the last time any of them have washed their hands or even if they did a good job of it.
You’d think that bathrooms would be the dirtiest places but nope, that’s not even close…
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has been the busiest airport in the world since 1998, with 104 million passengers who passed through in 2016. InsuranceQuotes.com, a Texas-based insurance website, recently did a study there and at 2 other major airports to determine what surfaces had the highest average number of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch, or colony-forming units (CFU).
The “winners” in the airport were:
Self Check-In Screen – had an average of a whopping 253,857 CFU (in fact, one screen the checked had over A MILLION CFU). It kind of makes sense, though…so many people use self-check in screens…with their fingers. Ew.)
Airline Gate Bench Armrest – 21,630 CFU
Water Fountain Button – 19,181 CFU
(comparative surface bacteria levels in a typical home would be 21,000 CFU on a kitchen sink, 203 CFU on a bathroom doorknob and 172 CFU on a toilet seat.)
If you think you’re safe from bacteria on the actual airplane, you’d be, of course, incorrect. They tested a bunch of surfaces on airplanes too and got the following:
Lavatory Flush Button – 95,145 CFU
Tray Table – 11,595 CFU
Seat Belt Buckle – 1,116 CFU
(comparative surface bacteria levels in a typical home would be 361 CFU on a kitchen counter top, 44 CFU on a cutting board and 30 CFU on a toilet handle).
It’s suggested that since more people travel through the airport than each individual plane, that’s why the airport’s numbers are so much higher.
These are the types of bacteria they were talking about, by the way:
Germs and bacteria have a bad reputation – after all, they’re the ones that make us sick, right? Not all germs and bacteria are harmful to humans, however. In fact, some bacteria are needed for our bodies to work properly, and not having enough is what can make us sick. These disease-fighting bacteria are usually gram-positive rods – helpful, probiotic bacteria. Don’t let your guard down fully, though – they can also be pathogenic. They were most likely to be found on airport water fountain buttons, making up 59 percent of CFU.
Gram-positive cocci are from the same family of bacteria with a different cell shape but are far more dangerous. Many infections can stem from these bacteria, including pneumonia, skin, ear, and sinus infections, food poisoning, meningitis, bacteremia, and toxic shock syndrome. Gram-positive cocci were found on all surfaces tested in the airport and on the plane – the greatest percentages found on lavatory flush buttons (82 percent) and tray tables (65 percent).
One-third of the bacteria found on tray tables were bacillus – bacteria that cause food to spoil and some diseases in humans. While there is a chance these bacteria can cause anthrax and be involved in various infections, some strains aide in digestion.
A bench armrest at an airport gate was the only place with a large collection of yeast – these fungi made up 40 percent of the CFU tested there. Luckily, yeast is a common fungus found on human skin and areas prone to moisture and are typically harmless. An accumulation of yeast can lead to infections but are unlikely to develop just leaning on an armrest.
The last germ we screened for was also the most dangerous. Gram-negative rods cause infections that are most common in health care settings – pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis. On top of causing serious infections, these bacteria are resistant to multiple drugs and can even resist newer ones. Seat belt buckles were where they were most commonly found, making up 46 percent of total CFU. Armrests on airline gate benches were also popular homes to these pesky germs – 40 percent of the bacteria tested were found to be gram-negative rods.
Germs are everywhere and unless you live in a literal plastic bubble, it’s impossible to 100% avoid them. So what can you do to help make sure you stay as healthy as possible? Keep your hands away from your eye, nose and mouth (or from your face in general) and WASH YOUR HANDS OFTEN. The PROPER soap and water handwashing technique is still best, but alcohol-based hand sanitizer can work in a pinch if there’s no visible dirt on your hands. Lysol and similar products are available as portable sprays and even in wipes nowadays, so you can clean surfaces before you come in contact with them. And then wash your hands again.
For what it’s worth (as you may sit there, considering bathing in sanitizer), there may be some good news on the horizon. As per CN Traveler, “Airbus is exploring antimicrobial technology that someday could be injected into everything from tray tables and seat covers to touch screens and galley areas. In the spring of 2016, Boeing announced a prototype for a self-sanitizing restroom that uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.99 percent of germs. And some Airbus bathrooms currently feature antimicrobial technology that, when injected into surfaces, eliminates nearly 100 percent of viruses and pathogens.” So many one of these days we won’t have to worry about germs and bacteria when traeling quite so much.
Many thanks (and a few “ewwwwws”) to Kelli B. for bringing this topic to our attention!
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