By a show of hands, it's the big airport germ zone


November 19, 2018

By a show of hands, it's the big airport germ zone

Bins where you put your shoes, keys and coats pose the highest risk of virus transmission, study shows. 

An estimated 30 million passengers are expected to funnel through the nation’s airports during the week of Thanksgiving.

One note of holiday travel advice: Use hand sanitizer as you walk into the airport. The germiest places, according to a recent study, might not be where you think.

The study by Finnish and British researchers, published in the BioMed Infectious Diseases Journal, reported that the airport surfaces with the highest virus concentrations are the bins in which you put your shoes, clothes and other accoutrements when you go through security screening.

Swabs taken of the bins at the Helsinki airport during the 2015-2016 flu season showed that four of eight bin swab samples contained the rhinovirus or adenovirus, which cause the common cold. UW Medicine's Paul Pottinger was surprised by the findings. 

“I thought they would have been on every swab,” said Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center in Seattle.

Where did the  researchers find the least disease-causing viruses and microbes? Airport toilet seats. 

“The germiest parts of the airport are the same as the germiest parts of the rest of the world – anything people touch,” Pottinger said, noting that people generally steer clear of handling toilet seats.  

Most germs can live on surfaces for up to a few hours or even a few days, he said.

The healthy way to approach this reality, the researchers said, is to use hand sanitizer before and after the security screening. Also, Pottinger added, use antibacterial wipes on your seat's armrest and fold-down tray. Other ways to avoid an unwanted travel bug are to wash your hands regularly and get an annual flu shot, he added.

“Everything you touch has been touched by somebody before," he said. "That’s OK. Most of the germs there are harmless, and some might even be helpful. But once in awhile they can make you sick. So don’t panic, don’t worry, just clean your hands."

-- Barbara Clements:, 206-221-6706

View related video soundbites with Pottinger below, or download them.

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