Airport security trays have more germs than toilets

airport security
Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are concerned about how airports are conducive to the spread of disease.

Airport security trays are dirtier than toilet seats, a new study has revealed. A team of British and Finnish researchers went around the Helsinki airport, swabbing various places that travellers come into contact with on a regular basis. They found that 50 percent of the plastic bins where carry-on luggage must be placed for security scanning carried the rhinovirus or adenovirus, which cause cold-like symptoms.

Other locations scored similarly poorly. Half of the samples taken from the airport pharmacy's checkout terminal revealed the presence of a cold virus, and one-third of the samples taken from the desks and glass dividers at passport control were contaminated. A plastic toy dog in the children's play area carried viruses 67 percent of the time.

Compare this to the humble toilet, which is usually held up as the epitome of filth. Of the 42 samples taken from toilet lids in the airport, not a single one carried a cold virus. This goes to show that regular cleaning goes a long way toward preventing the spread of disease -- and that the things we usually fear will contaminate us are not necessarily the most threatening. From the report:

"No respiratory viruses were detected in a considerable number of samples from the surfaces of toilets most commonly touched, which is not unexpected, as passengers may pay particular attention to limiting touch and to hand hygiene, in a washroom environment."

The big concern that comes out of this study, though, is how rapidly diseases can spread, given the right conditions. Airports are particularly susceptible, with densely-packed groups of travellers coming into contact with each other from all around the world. Security trays, for example, are handled by everyone, and in such a way that much of the palm and grip comes into contact with them. As the scientists wrote,

"The results demonstrated that airports can serve as a potential risk zone for an 'emerging pandemic threat' — a prospect that has already become a major concern in the aftermath of the 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2014 Ebola epidemic."

Their solution? Better cleaning practices that disinfect the trays thoroughly on a more regular basis, and offering hand sanitizer to travellers both before and after handling.

Before you run out to buy a container of disinfecting wipes to use on everything you touch, however, a dose of perspective might be useful. The world is dirty; most of us get that. But you can't go through it thinking you're going to die every time you touch something. You can be smart about it, wash your hands frequently and vigorously, and keep your hands away from your face. You can maintain healthy habits like good nutrition and sufficient sleep that boost your immune system and make it easier to fight off viruses. You could even stop eating meat if you're worried about the spread of a supervirus. (The H1N1 outbreak is attributed to pigs on factory farms and their standing pools of manure.)

One thing you cannot do is seal yourself in a bubble and panic every time you enter a public place. That is unrealistic. Then you're operating on the level of my local health unit, which has forbidden toys at the dentist's office for "health and safety reasons" and installed a TV with Netflix instead. Gotta keep those kid safe from germs, but who cares about their mental wellbeing and motor skills, not to mention the sanity of everyone else in the waiting room?

By all means, be wary of the germs crawling on that security tray the next time you're travelling, but do something practical, like scrubbing your hands thoroughly once you're through. We can't change the world, but we can change how we respond to it.

Airport security trays have more germs than toilets
Scientists are concerned about how airports are conducive to the spread of disease.

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