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September 05, 2018

The dirtiest part of an airport isn't the bathrooms

Study tests common surfaces for respiratory viruses

Illness Airports
Stock_Carroll - Philadelphia International Airport Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia International Airport.

The dirtiest part of an airport is unavoidable.

Thank you, airport security.

The plastic trays used at security checkpoints carry the most germs of any airport surface commonly encountered by passengers. More than the toilet handles. More than the armrests at the gate. And more than escalator and stairway handrails.

So says a new study published in the "BMC Infectious Diseases" journal.

Researchers collected surface and air samples at Finland's Helsinki Airport in February 2016. They were looking to detect respiratory viruses in passenger environments – all while Finland experienced an influenza epidemic.

They found evidence of respiratory viruses on 10 percent of the surfaces they tested and among 25 percent of the air samples they collected.

The plastic trays produced the dirtiest surface samples – with the exception of a playground toy that was only tested three times.

Respiratory viruses were detected on half of the plastic tray samples. Similarly, the air samples gathered around security checkpoints showed a respiratory virus 25 percent of the time.

By contrast, none of the bathroom samples – including from toilet handles, stall locks and toilet bowl lids – yielded any viruses. 

Additionally, only one of 17 samples collected on escalator and stairway handrails revealed a virus. And tests on luggage trolleys, elevator buttons and check-in touchscreens failed to detect any viruses.

But airport security trays proved a hotspot for viruses – for a variety of reasons. 

Researchers wrote that security procedures are "an obligatory step for all departing passengers," noting that each tray "is rapidly recycled and potentially touched by several hundred passengers per day." Also, the trays are non-porous – a surface on which "virus survival is known to be prolonged."

The study was a joint effort by the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare.

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