It might be worth packing a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your carry-on luggage next time you head to the airport. Why? Because apparently about half of those plastic rectangular security bins everyone is forced to temporarily store their items in are covered in viruses that can cause respiratory infections.
At least, they are in at Helsinki Airport in Finland, where a team of Finnish and British researchers gathered samples. Their study, published in the BioMed Central Infectious Diseases journal (you’re a subscriber, aren’t you?), set out to locate flu and cold virus hotspots in airports, and rather than finding the nasty bugs on or around the toilets as you might think, they discovered the most viruses hiding on the bins used to run passengers’ personal items through the security screening point.
“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 researchers said.
The security bins on the other hand…
“These boxes typically cycle with high frequency to subsequent passengers, and are typically seized with a wide palm surface area and strong grip,” researchers wrote in the study.
Samples were gathered three times during the 2015 to 2016 flu season–hats off to the scientists who braved the airports at peak season to get these–and 50 per cent of those taken from the plastic bins were found to contain the respiratory viruses adenovirus or rhinovirus.
The bins were dirtier in the virus sense than other tested surfaces including buttons, desks, dividers and even a toy dog in a children’s play area (all of which also contained some amount of viruses).
The takeaway? Airports should wash those bins more often and/or offer free hand sanitizer following the security screening process. But regardless of how sanitary the surfaces are, don’t forget that most respiratory viruses are airborne, meaning you’re most at risk by simply breathing the same air as everybody else. Airports play host to all types of people, healthy and sick, so if you need to catch a flight, you’d better exercise caution to make sure that’s all you catch.