The dirtiest place in an airport is the one spot people can’t avoid

Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Take note. The dirtiest, most virus-laden part of any airport is not the bathroom. In fact, it’s a place no airline customer can entirely avoid.

Thanks to work carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Nottingham, we now know that the security-line trays used to transport bags, loose change, bottles, and laptops through X-ray machines are the grimiest surfaces in airports—more so than toilet bowls, even.

The team’s research involved swabbing and collecting 90 surface samples and four air samples in the Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland over the course of several weeks. They tested children’s playground equipment, buttons on payment terminals, and bathrooms, among many other spots. After collecting samples, the team sent their swabs back to the laboratory, which calculated the average amount of bacteria per square inch.

“Our main findings identify that respiratory virus contamination of frequently touched surfaces is not uncommon at airports; and that plastic security screening trays appear commonly contaminated,” the researchers wrote in their study, which was published (pdf) in the journal BMC Infection Diseases.

Those respiratory viruses included rhinovirus (often associated with runny noses, the common cold, and pneumonia) and coronavirus (linked to sore throats and sinus issues). The flu was also detected on many surfaces and in the air. In terms of the security-line trays, swabs tested positive for those viruses about 50% of the time, compared to 14% for handrails and 33% for the divider glass panels at security checkpoints.

Contagious viruses have been known to hitchhike their way around the world via the global network of airports and the airplanes that connect them. In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) traveled from Hong Kong to a handful of countries. And in 2009, the worldwide spread of pandemic influenza (known as H1N1) spread outward from the US and Mexico.

To work toward decreasing the threat of falling ill from exposure to viruses, the researchers suggest airports might reconfigure their processes, especially in areas that are mandatory for airline passengers to walk through, such as security lines.

“Measures preventing transmission locally could be enhanced, for example by improving hand sanitization opportunities where intense, repeat touching of surfaces takes place,” they wrote. “Many cleaning agents, household (antibacterial) wipes, and anti-viral tissues are able to rapidly render influenza virus nonviable.”

So something to pack for future trips: disinfectant. Just make sure it comes in a bottle no more than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters).