Where Are The Most Viruses In An Airport? Hint: It's Probably Not The Toilet

Sep 8, 2018
Originally published on September 8, 2018 8:04 pm

When you go through airport security, you might wish you had a pair of gloves on like the TSA agents do.

Researchers have evidence that the plastic trays in security lines are a haven for respiratory viruses. The trays likely harbor more of these pathogens than the flushing button on the airport toilets, researchers reported last week in BMC Infectious Diseases.

Eww.

"Yeah. When I walk into the security line and see the TSA agents wearing those gloves, I'm like, 'Don't touch me with those,' " says Dr. Mark Gendreau, at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals in Beverly, Mass., who specializes in aviation medicine and wasn't involved in the study. (Note: Per protocol, TSA agents are supposed to use fresh gloves before touching a passenger.)

The study was teeny-weenie. Virologists looked for viruses on 90 surfaces at the Helsinki Airport. And they took only eight samples from the plastic security trays over the course of three weeks. Half of those samples showed signs of at least one respiratory virus, such as influenza A or a coronavirus that can cause severe respiratory infections. (In contrast, none of the 42 samples taken from surfaces around the toilets showed traces of these viruses.)

But the study's take-home message matches up with that of two previous studies, Gendreau says: The security area is a hot zone for infectious diseases at an airport.

"In the security line, you have the highest opportunities for disease transmission in the airport," Gendreau says.

Back in 2012, the National Academy of Sciences launched an investigation into disease transmission at airports and on planes. The goal was to give airports and airlines inexpensive ways to curb the spread of diseases.

First, the researchers had to figure out where people were most likely to catch a bug. "We wanted to find the choke points for transmission and offer mitigation strategies," says Gendreau, who contributed to that study.

The researchers used Boston Logan International Airport as their testing ground. And they quickly realized the security line was a major hub for transmission because it's crowded and sometimes has poor ventilation.

"TSA has actually done a similar study," Gendreau says. "They also found that the security area is a choke point for disease transmission.

So should passengers clean their hands immediately after going through the security line?

"Absolutely," Gendreau says. "In my side satchel, I have my laptop, gum and a bottle of hand santizer," he says. "As soon as I get through security, I always sanitize my hands."

Gendreau recommends using sanitizers that contain at least 60 percent alcohol or washing your hands with soap and water. "Just make sure you do if for 25 seconds," he says.

And be careful about where you put your hands before you get a chance to clean them, Gendreau adds.

"The trick is to be mindful about not touching your face," he says. "Eighty percent of all infections are transmitted by your hands: You touch a surface that's contaminated with a virus and then introduce it into your body by touching your face. Humans touch their eyes, nose or mouth about 200 times a day."

In the new study at the Helsinki airport, the researchers also found signs of respiratory viruses on a plastic toy dog in the kids' play area, on the glass of the passport control desk and the handrails of a stairway.

The researchers don't know if the viruses were alive on these surfaces. They didn't try to grow viruses in the lab. But previous studies have found respiratory viruses can survive on some surfaces for hours or even days. For example, one study reported that influenza virus lasts for one to two days on nonporous surfaces, such stainless steel and plastic.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears here. OK, so the summer travel season is behind us, but Thanksgiving is going to be here soon enough. So air travelers, listen up. There is new information that could save you from catching a cold on your trip. As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, the key may be washing your hands before you even get to the gate.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The new advice is based on a very simple experiment at the international airport in Helsinki. Researchers took little q tips and run them over various surfaces in the airport - so things like the handrails, the buttons on the elevator, even the toilet flusher. Then they took the samples back to the airport and looked for signs of respiratory viruses like the flu and the common cold. One surface at the airport popped up as a hotspot for these viruses - the plastic bins at the security line.

MARK GENDREAU: These trays are not, you know, cleaned after every use. And you've got thousands of people going through these lines on any given day.

DOUCLEFF: That's Dr. Mark Gendreau from Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospital in Massachusetts. Gendreau specializes in aviation medicine and wasn't involved in the study. He says it was published recently in BMC Infectious Diseases. And he points out that it was very, very small. The researchers took only 90 samples across the entire airport, and they were only looking for respiratory viruses, not for stomach bugs. But Gendreau says the conclusion of the study matches up with previous ones here in the U.S. In particular, one study at Boston Logan International Airport tried to pinpoint disease hotspots in the airport. Guess what was at the top of the list? The security line.

GENDREAU: You have people from all over the world congregating in that area. That geographic diversity of people is incredible.

DOUCLEFF: So it's crowded. There can be poor ventilation. And you've got the potential for diseases from all over the world meeting in that one spot. So what should people do after they come out of security?

GENDREAU: No. 1, you've got to sanitize those hands.

DOUCLEFF: Use gel hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Or go the old-fashioned route and wash with soap and water. Either way...

GENDREAU: The rubbing of your hands has to be at least 25 seconds. You've got to have some friction in there to disrupt the cellular membrane of the micro organism in order to activate it.

DOUCLEFF: Finally, he says, be mindful of not touching your face before you disinfect your hands.

GENDREAU: Eighty percent of all infectious diseases are transmitted by human hands.

DOUCLEFF: Your hands touch something like a security bin, then you touch your nose or mouth. And the next thing you know, you're fighting off a nasty cold. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.