The Dirtiest Place in an Airport Is Not in the Bathroom

A study showed which surfaces in an airport have the highest concentration of viruses, so make sure to wash your hands.
A security line at an airport
Image: Wikipedia

There’s nothing worse than waking up the day after flying and realizing you caught a cold. Something about the public spaces, lack of real bathrooms, and recirculated air seems to make airports and planes a petri dish of germs. But the filthiest place in the airport may not be what you expect.

A recent study showed that the surface with the highest concentration of viruses at an airport is actually those little bins you put your coat and shoes in at security. Researchers collected air and surface samples at Helsinki-Vantaa, the main airport in Finland, weekly during the peak flu season in 2015 and 2016. Each of the samples was tested in real time for flu virus, as well as four other common cold-causing viruses including rhinovirus and adenovirus. The security bins tested positive 50 percent of the time for four different viruses, the highest of any surface and much worse than compared to, for example, the toilet seats, which didn’t test positive for viruses once over 14 tests.

This particular study was published at the end of the summer, but a researcher at the University of Washington School of Medicine used it to prepare some travel tips this week ahead of the peak travel season in the US, when a record 30.6 million passengers are expected to travel on US airlines.

“The germiest parts of the airport are the same as the germiest parts of the rest of the world—anything people touch,” said Paul Pottinger, director of the Infectious Diseases & Tropical Medicine Clinic at UW Medical Center in Seattle, in a video . “Everything you touch has been touched by somebody before. That’s OK. Most of the germs that are there are harmless, and some might even be helpful. But once in awhile they can make you sick.”

Pottinger said the most effective way to avoid getting sick when you inevitably come in contact with these surfaces is to wash your hands regularly while traveling, with warm water and soap. Getting a flu shot is also a good idea, but you already did that…right?