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Germs live for days on surfaces in jets

Government studies have debunked the myth that air circulated in commercial planes is packed with disease-causing germs. Now comes a study that raises fears about germs on cabin surfaces.

Microbiologists and engineers at Auburn University found that disease-causing bacteria can live several days on armrests, tray tables, toilet buttons, window shades, seat pockets and seat leather.

The bacteria tested in the study include a type of E. coli that can cause diarrhea in adults and a drug-resistant Staphylococcus that can lead to infections, skin disease, pneumonia and sepsis.

Bacteria in saliva that researchers placed on seat pockets lived the longest — eight days, according to the study, sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline industry points out that their cabins are routinely cleaned. "Airlines know that cleanliness of aircraft is important to customers when they make their travel decisions," said Jean Medina of Airlines for America, a trade group. "As such, airlines work continuously to keep planes clean."

You can at least breathe easier that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has already dismissed fears about diseases spread by air on commercial planes.

Newer planes recirculate up to half of cabin air with outside air and pass it through a series of high-efficiency particulate air filters, up to 30 times per hour, according to the CDC. "As a result, the air cabin environment is not conducive to the spread of most infectious diseases," the agency says.


Responding to privacy concerns, the Transportation Security Administration pulled 171 full-body scanners from airports last year.

But the scanners, which cost between $130,000 and $170,000 each, have not gone to waste. Most have been shipped to jails, prisons and state and local governments. The TSA said 154 scanners were transferred to law enforcement agencies, with 96 others remaining at the manufacturer’s warehouse. Several law enforcement agencies paid only a fraction of the original cost under a federal surplus program.

The TSA now uses full-body scanners that alert screeners to possible hidden weapons by showing yellow boxes on a picture of a generic, cartoonlike image.


Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times

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