Super Bugs or disease-causing bacteria can linger on surfaces in commercial airplane cabins for up to a week, according to an Auburn University study presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

Kiril Vaglenov, a graduate student in Auburn’s Department of Biological Sciences, conducted a two-year study—funded through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airliner Cabin Environmental Research Center—to determine how long E. coli O157:H7 and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, would survive on commonly touched surfaces under typical airplane conditions. A major airline carrier supplied researchers with material from armrests, plastic tray tables, seat-pocket cloth, window shades and metal toilet buttons.

“Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on these surfaces, particularly the porous material such as armrests and seat-pockets,” said Vaglenov. “Air travelers should be aware of the risk of catching or spreading a disease to other passengers and practice good personal hygiene.”

In order for these super bugs and bacteria to be transmitted from a cabin surface to a person, it must survive the environmental conditions in the airplane. In the study Vaglenov simulated the temperature and humidity levels typically found during commercial flight.

MRSA survived the longest—168 hours—on material from the seat-back pocket, while E. coli O157:H7 lived for 96 hours on the material from the armrest.

“The point of this study is not to be alarmist, but to point out to the airlines the importance of providing a sanitary environment for travelers,” said professor Jim Barbaree, director of the study and mentor for Vaglenov. “We want to work with them to minimize the risks to human health.”

The Auburn team is currently investigating how long pathogens that cause other diseases such as tuberculosis survive in an airplane environment.

Vaglenov said future steps include exploring effective disinfecting procedures and testing other surfaces and materials that have antimicrobial properties to determine if they can help reduce health risks.

The Airliner Cabin Environment Research Center is funded through a Federal Aviation Administration Cooperative Agreement titled “National Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Research in the Intermodal Transport Environment.” The organization’s vision for the future is that of an integrated global transportation system that is increasingly intermodal, where people and cargo safely, seamlessly and economically travel anywhere at any time by unique and personalized combinations of land, sea and air travel.

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