Many people prefer to move from one place to another via airplanes as air travel is often faster and more convenient than other modes of transportation. Unfortunately, airplanes also serve as a medium for disease-causing bacteria and a new study shows that these harmful bacteria don't get off planes as easy and as fast as most passengers do.
A new study presented at the114th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston on Tuesday, researchers tested how long two types of common harmful bacteria Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 can survive in airplane cabins.
MRSA, which is responsible for about 19,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, is resistant to antibiotics and causes skin infections such as boils and abscesses. The E.coli O157:H7, on the other hand, is associated with foodborne illnesses such as bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. It also causes hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and children below five years old. HUS could lead to acute kidney failure.
The researchers exposed six common items found inside the airplane namely plastic tray table, armrest, leather, metal toilet button, seat pocket cloth and window shade from an airline company to MRSA and E. coli to test the duration of their survival once the items are placed in an environment that mimic airplane conditions.
The researchers found that MRSA thrive longest on seat pocket cloth with survival duration of 168 hours. The E. coli O157:H7, on the other hand, survive longest on the airplane armrest thriving for 96 hours.
Study author James Barbaree, from the Auburn University Center for Detection and Food Safety in Alabama, said that bacteria tend to thrive in porous surfaces because these have plenty of crevices that can be conducive to their survival.
"The porous surfaces...are more protective for the bacteria - cloth, like the pocket cloth on the back of the seat, something like that has a lot of crevices where bacteria can get in," Barbaree said. "If you compare that to a stainless steel toilet handle, the toilet handle is not porous so the survival is not as long there as in the porous surface."
Study author Kiril Vaglenov, also from Auburn University in Alabama, said that their findings show that MRSA and E. coli can survive on select types of airplane surfaces regardless of the body fluid present and this can pose risks for transmission. Barbaree, however, said that illnesses can be avoided with good hygiene.