May 20th, 2014
09:31 AM ET

E. coli, MRSA can survive for days on planes

Ever sit on a plane and wonder how long the germs left by passengers past plan on hanging around?

A new study examined how long two potentially deadly bacteria – E. coli and MRSA – can live on various surfaces inside an airplane’s cabin, and how easily they are transmitted by contact.

Researchers at Auburn University used actual armrests, toilet flush handles, tray tables, window shades, seats and seat pockets provided by Delta Airlines for the study – inoculating them with bacteria and storing them in conditions meant to simulate a pressurized cabin: 75 degrees Fahrenheit at 20% humidity.

In general, bacteria lived longest on the most porous surfaces. For example, MRSA lasted seven days on the cloth seat pocket, six days on the rubber armrest and leather seat, five days on the plastic window shade and tray table, and four days on the steel toilet handle.

E. coli, by one measure, survived four days on the rubber armrest, three days on the plastic tray table, and two days on the steel toilet handle.

“In small nooks, like the ones created by a pore, they are protected from environmental stressors like dehydration, UV and disinfectants,” said the lead study author, Kiril Vaglenov.

But the same porous material properties that protect bacteria from threats also seem to prevent them from spreading easily.

By contrast, the bacteria on less porous materials like tray tables, toilet handles and window shades scored much higher than seat pockets and leather seats for transmissibility – meaning bacteria on these surfaces were far more likely to transfer to human skin.

"The best thing you can do to protect yourself when flying is: Before you put anything into your mouth, bring some alcohol hand sanitizer and sanitize your hands. It's all about risk mitigation," said Michael Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“After I wipe my hands, I use the rest of the alcohol wipe to wipe down the tabletop, just in case I touch it and inadvertently eat something.”

The study did not take bacterial samples from actual aircraft cabins.

“We have efficient cleaning specifications that are standardized across our entire operation before all departures and on aircraft that remain on the ground overnight,” Delta Airlines said in response to the study. “This includes removing all trash, wiping down all countertops, surfaces and seats, cleaning floors and replacing and restocking pillowcases and blankets among several other procedures.”

The study was supported by funds from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Airliner Cabin Environment Research Center.

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  2. Sue

    E. coli, MRSA can survive for days on planes – What I find worrisome with this article is no mention of the air vents above every seat. They are full of bacteria and viruses that are being circulated around the plane and on each passenger. There has even been active TB cultured from these vents.

    May 20, 2014 at 12:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Bacteria are everywhere

    Airplanes have them and so do almost everything else. Each day you eat thousands if not millions of bacteria and viruses. Luckily most of them cannot survive the acidic conditions of your stomach. Probably the best thing that you can do is wash your hands often with soap which will wash away them. So before eating washing your hands just like you were taught in kindergarten.

    May 20, 2014 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. this is getting old

    Why in the heck are we hearing so much about this "deadly virus" that has killed no one in the United States? Why is CNN making a mountain out of a mole hill? The only "reported" cases in the US involved a couple of people who had a slight fever, stomach flu like symptoms and were fine 4 days later. We call that the Flu.. more people die each week from the common flu then will die of MRSA... I repeat.. not on US citizen has suffered longer than a week with this CNN non story

    May 20, 2014 at 13:56 | Report abuse | Reply
    • miguelmontemayor

      MRSA is not MERS. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus vs. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. About 0.8%-2% of the U.S. population is colonized with MRSA, according to the CDC.

      May 20, 2014 at 18:25 | Report abuse |
    • Sherri

      MRSA and MERS are two different things. Please check with your doctor to get more info. Confusing, but different illnesses.

      May 23, 2014 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
    • MRSA victim

      MRSA has killed plenty of people in the USA and around the World.

      June 5, 2014 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
  5. huh

    Another story meant to distract Americans from the real threat: A judicial system that cannot be criminally-prosecuted... so now OUR rights are for sale to highest bidders. FOCUS PEOPLE. The last thing you need to worry about is, "Is it clean?" when OUR government is SOOOOO DIRTY.

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  8. i have the answer

    Spraying the surfaces with BIoShield 75, a non-toxic antimicrobial, will keep the plane germ-free for up to 3 months each time! There are cutting-edge nanotechnologies available on the market that the airlines need to become educated about.

    May 20, 2014 at 16:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mad

      I sometimes clean planes. We use anti bacteria chemicals that are very strong. They always tell us to make sure is germ free. They audit us every single night. We use a similar product.

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    I recently flew to the US via Delta and got so damn sick I missed an entire week of training opportunity. I had flu, and diarrhea and developed gastric ulcer. It was a very difficult experience because you travel to a far away location, get sick all alone, and feel helpless all the time. It maybe a simple flu or diarrhea, or whatever but the experience of going at it alone, can be very frightening.

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    Hello, "The study did not take bacterial samples from actual aircraft cabins.".

    Useless article, the same potential germs can be at your office bathroom doorknob, etc.
    Which is why I flush urinals with my elbow, and actuate sinks with my forearm.
    If for some reason I can't, I won't. Tough.

    May 22, 2014 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
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    The Bioshield 75 idea is old hat and organosilane based. It forms a covalent bond with the surface. Airlines will not accept this. Better use Germ-O-Gard which protects the surface for days based upon better technology and passes the USEPA test for residual antimicrobial efficacy

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.