Kiril Vaglenov, a graduate student in Auburn University's Department of Biological Sciences, and Professor Jim Barbaree, director of the study, said a major airline carrier supplied them with material from armrests, plastic tray tables, seat-pocket cloth, window shades and metal toilet buttons.
The researchers tested the materials to determine how long E. coli O157:H7 and MRSA survived on commonly touched surfaces under simulated temperature and humidity levels typically found during commercial flight.
"Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on these surfaces, particularly the porous material such as armrests and seat-pockets," Vaglenov said in a statement.
"Air travelers should be aware of the risk of catching or spreading a disease to other passengers and practice good personal hygiene."
The researchers found MRSA survived 168 hours on material from the seat-back pocket, while E. coli O157:H7 remained for 96 hours on the material from the armrest.
"The point of this study is not to be alarmist, but to point out to the airlines the importance of providing a sanitary environment for travelers," Barbaree said. "We want to work with them to minimize the risks to human health."
The researchers did not test actual airlines surfaces, and the study does not reflect airline cleaning; the researchers focused on how long germs lasted on typical airline surfaces.
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston.
A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research a few years ago found passengers were more than 100 times more likely to get sick on an airplane compared to everyday circumstances.
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