Are Airplanes Flying Petri Dishes?


It is a common joke that airplanes are veritable flying petri dishes. As they stow their carry-on luggage, many travelers may be wondering where exactly the bacteria are lurking. According to a new study, the pocket that contains the Sky Mall catalog may be germier than the toilet flusher. This is due to the way some bacteria can survive on certain surfaces for more than a week.

Researchers have found that Methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) survived on the material of a seat-back pocket for a full week. This is longer than it was able to live on any of the other surfaces in the airplane. MRSA’s shortest lifespan was on the toilet flusher. For four days, E. coli O157:H7 lived on an armrest. This particular bacterium is a common cause of foodborne illnesses.

James M. Barbaree is an associate director of research at Auburn University. He said that it is still unclear how likely it would be for a person to get sick from four day old E. coli. However, the odds are increased in situations, like on airplanes, where people are crowded together. As a reminder, Barbaree said that proper hygiene practices and habits will lower a person’s risk.

E. coli
E. coli

It is not uncommon for people to be exposed to many kinds of bacteria and not become infected. That is because some bacteria are common in our environments and many people’s bodies have built up a strong immunity. However, it is important to know that both E. coli and MRSA can be fatal. E. coli can cause intense diarrhea, even leading to hemolytic-uremic syndrome. This is a disorder that annihilates blood cells. MRSA causes skin lesions that can grow at alarming rates with no medical attention. Pneumonia is also a risk. As is often the case, children under five, the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to becoming ill.

There were six different surfaces used for the study: armrest, metal toilet flusher, tray table (plastic), seat leather, seat pocket (cloth) and window shade. The researchers exposed the bacteria to common airplane conditions such as┬ásaliva and sweat. Each of the bacteria’s survival skills were tested. Though inconclusive, the researchers suggested that the various structures of the surfaces could explain why certain bacterium lived longer.

One place that MRSA thrives is in water. In Key West, Florida for example there is a problem of pandemic proportions with people contracting the illness after even the smallest of open wounds is exposed to the ocean water that surrounds the island. Key West is situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Cruise ships port there almost daily. According to Dr. Jerry Weinstock, the human waste that is dumped from the ships has played a major role in the local outbreak.

One can imagine that on an airplane, tiny particles of sweat, urine, saliva and fecal matter all could end up in the porous surfaces of the cloth used for those seat-back pockets. Thereby being optimum places for bacteria to survive. It may well be that in order for airplanes to be truly safe for passengers, their entire interiors will need to be made of either plastic or stainless steel. There may come a day when airplanes will look more like laboratories than transportation vessels. The airplanes are flying petri dishes joke just got very real and for some, very dangerous.

Opinion by Stacy Lamy


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