Bacteria can linger on airplane surfaces for days

May 27, 2014

Disease-causing bacteria can linger on surfaces found in airplane cabins for days, even up to a week, according to research presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

“Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins,” says Kiril Vaglenov, a graduate student in Auburn University’s Department of Biological Sciences, who presented the data. “This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem.”

In order for disease-causing bacteria to be transmitted from a cabin surface to a person, the bacteria must survive the environmental conditions in the airplane. Vaglenov’s team tested the ability of two pathogens, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7, to survive on surfaces commonly found in airplanes. They obtained six different types of material from a major carrier (armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather), inoculated them with the bacteria, and exposed them to typical airplane conditions. MRSA lasted longest (168 hours) on material from the seat-back pocket, while E. coli O157:H7 survived longest (96 hours) on material from the armrest.

“Our data show that both bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present,” says Vaglenov. The research is laying the groundwork for important work to come.

“Our plans include exploring effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin,” he adds. Vaglenov and colleagues are conducting ongoing trials with other pathogens, including the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. Watch a CBS News video report on this story.

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