Airliner cabins get bad rap for illnesses, experts say
March 17, 1999
From Medical Correspondent Eileen O'Connor
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Winter, for frequent flyers, means more complaints about bugs -- cold and flu bugs, that is.
Many blame the air circulating through the sealed, relatively small aircraft passenger cabins for raising their odds of coming down with a winter cold.
"I think it's just the proximity of all the people. Maybe there's not enough air getting pumped through it," one passenger grumbled recently. "Maybe it's not getting cleaned enough."
But experts say that theory just won't fly.
The Federal Aviation Administration toughened air quality guidelines in 1996, requiring more fresh air in the cabin. Numerous studies indicate cabin air is actually lower in bacterial content and other contaminates than the air in an average office.
"I think you'll find that the quality of air is better than in most situations where people congregate in large numbers in a small space," said Dr. Jon Jordan, an FAA researcher.
A congressionally mandated study of the spread of disease in planes, conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety And Health, is halfway complete. So far, air quality is again getting a clean bill of health.
"There's no evidence based on these studies that there are any pollutants in the air that could adversely affect health," said Dr. Russell B. Rayman of the Aerospace Medical Association.
Rayman said the evidence suggests people do get sick more often on planes. But it's not a bacterium or virus that's at fault, just what he calls the facts of flight.
"There's a lower amount of oxygen available. There is vibration, there is very low humidity, the air is extremely dry. There are temperature fluctuations.
"There is also, in some cases, a little anxiety included in just going to the airport going on a flight."
Still, some passengers are not convinced. "Statistics can show anything you want them to," one passenger sniffed.
But if the experts are right -- that stress and fatigue, not airborne illnesses, are contributing to in-flight illness -- the best advice would be to just sit back, relax and enjoy the flight.
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