Study Warns of Toxic Bacterium Risk in the Airline Environment

I have been in a plane more hours than I care to count in the last year. To be safe, I have gone to purchasing a bottle of water before boarding, so that I don’t have to be dependent on the airline staff or at risk from the ice/glassware they serve. Because of the SARS epidemic and the MERS epidemic from the mid east, I bring along a mask, in case I am sitting next to someone with a bad cough. But a report by FOX News makes me even more cautious.

Researchers from Auburn University tested two toxic bacteria on simulated airplane surfaces and found some disturbing results.

MRSA will live up to 168 hours on the simulated environment of porous seat cloth. MRSA is a “staph” bacterium most frequently found on skin and in airways. It is spread by contact, is very resilient to antibiotics and kills people every day.

E. Coli O157:H7, a serious food poisoning bacterium, will live up to 96 hours on the simulated environment of armrests and tabletops. This is the notorious bacterium that causes toxic and deadly diarrhea and kidney failure. It is spread from contaminated stool, usually from people not washing their hands.

Bring on the sanitizer wipes.

Any reasonable interpretation of the above data would encourage airplane travelers to “sterilize” their environment. Really, with airlines crowded to capacity, limited opportunity to get out of your seat, sometimes marginal bathroom facilities, closed ventilation systems, rapid turnover of planes with minimal cleaning, it should be no surprise that you are at risk sitting in that airline seat.

I will continue to travel but will add another step to reduce my risks. I would encourage you to do the same.

  • Wear long pants and shirts, not shorts or tank tops. Protect your skin.
  • Bring along sanitizer wipes.
  • Upon sitting clean your area.

Don’t misunderstand. We are at risk of disease everywhere we travel. So don’t stop traveling, just take precautions.


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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