Airlines used to have a motto that said “fly the friendly skies,” but with bacteria lurking throughout the pressurized cabin it is not so friendly to fly, knowing that risk mitigation is currently the responsibility of the passenger as the airlines have not yet resolved that cause disease. The American Society for Microbiology did a recent study and presented these findings at their annual meeting. It seems that airplane cabins are literal incubators that promote the growth of these germs and bacteria.
The study was funded by the Airliner Cabin Environment Research Center and the Federal Aviation Administration so that they could pinpoint the specific culprits and find out how long these pathogens could survive in a pressurized cabin. Delta Airlines was utilized for the study which was conducted by Kiril Vaglenov and James Bargaree, Auburn University researchers. The pressurized cabin was monitored at 20 percent humidity, with temperature set at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Testing was done on toilet flush handles, window shades, armrests, leather, seats, and seat pockets. The toilet handles proved to be less germ infested with MRSA than did the seat-back pockets, while E. coli favored the armrests.
MRSA and E. coli were the two bacteria which were found on the above-named surfaces in this cabin and both are known to be potentially fatal. The more porous a surface is, the longer the bacteria can live. MRSA proved to have survival skills of 168 hours, which is seven days, and E. coli lasted for 96 hours, which is four days. Compound those statistics by passengers who continue to board planes carrying a new round of either of those diseases, and it potentially never goes away.
Transmission is casual and can be from surface to skin, or skin to skin. The risk of transmission is there, even without bodily fluids such as saliva and sweat being present. In other words, whatever is touched that is contaminated is transferable. Crowded areas always pose an issue for germ transmission where contamination is present. Avoiding touching anything while on an airplane is virtually impossible, which does increase passenger vulnerability to contamination, making it not so friendly to fly when risk mitigation of bacterial contamination becomes the responsibility of the passenger.
MRSA is one form of staph bacteria which has become antibiotic resistant. It can cause infections to the skin, lungs, pneumonia, blood streams, surgical wounds, IV or areas where catheters are present, urinary tract, as well as sepsis. Any one of these can become life threatening. The World Health Organization projects that 19,000 are killed yearly in the United States alone from this drug-resistant bacteria.
E. coli is connected to many food borne illnesses as well as cross-touch contamination. It can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, and can also cause Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) in children. HUS is premature destruction of blood cells in which the damaged cells clog the filtering system of the kidneys. This can be life-threatening. HUS can also attack adults. Symptoms usually develop within 2-14 days of exposure with noticeable bloody stools, abdominal pain, and vomiting. Timely treatment is necessary for a successful recovery.
The Medical University of South Carolina recommends that airline passengers carry hand sanitizer. A professor of their immunology and microbiology department, Michael Schmidt, said it all comes down to risk mitigation. Use hand sanitizer before handling and eating food. Use alcohol wipes to clean the pull down tray. Use hand sanitizer before and after flushing, before and after reaching into seat pocket, or raising or lowering the window shade, or placing hands on the armrests, and certainly before touching a kleenex for nose-blowing. Risk mitigation means doing everything possible for protection, which is what scientists are referring to as good hygiene practice.
Since antibiotics are not an option in treating MRSA and E.coli due to their resistance to synthetic drugs, some consider essential oils to be a simple and effective answer. Professor Yiannis Samaras and Dr. Effimia Eriotou tested eight of the essential oils and found that the antimicrobial activity could kill the bacteria within 60 minutes. This research was conducted at the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands in Greece.
Another research study was conducted at the University of Manchester which showed that the growth and activity of MRSA and E.coli were eliminated within just two minutes after coming in contact with the essentials oils. The University’s Faculty of Medicine is seeking more funding for research on combating these superbugs. Peter Warn, Hope Hospital, said it is difficult to get funding because essential oils cannot be patented. Thieves Oil is a blend of five of the essential oils which are known to kill MRSA and E. coli.
While airlines will continue to figure out how to combat the bacterium that lurk in their cabins, it is imperative that the air passenger becomes proactive on behalf of themselves and loved ones who choose air service. Airlines may not sound so friendly for flying knowing that bacteria is present, but since it is a necessary means of transportation, with proper risk mitigation passengers can fly with less risk of infection.
By Jill Boyer-Adriance