The Germiest Place in an Airport Isn't Where You Think

Nothing ruins a trip like coming down with something. If you’re a frequent sufferer of post-vacation colds, there’s something in the airport you might want to be extra careful around: those airport security trays.

According to a new study from the University of Nottingham and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare, the plastic bins we drop our shoes, liquids, and other carry-ons in are home to the highest concentration of viruses—including viruses that cause the common cold—in the entire airport.

The research, published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, examined 90 different swabs of surfaces inside Helsinki Airport during winter 2016. Samples came from stair and escalator handrails, check-in kiosk touchscreens, toys in a children’s play area, toilets, and security trays. (A similar although perhaps less scientific swabbing experiment from found check-in kiosk screens to be the airport surface most covered with fungi and bacteria, FYI.) Ten different respiratory viruses were found in 10% of the samples. Viruses were found in half of the samples taken from security trays; no viruses were detected on toilet bowls, flush buttons, or the locks inside stall doors.

“Our main findings identify that respiratory virus contamination of frequently touched surfaces is not uncommon at airports; and that plastic security screening trays appear commonly contaminated,” the researchers wrote in the study. “The latter is consistent with security procedures being an obligatory step for all departing passengers, and that each security tray is rapidly recycled and potentially touched by several hundred passengers per day.”

The trays may be particularly hospitable to viruses, the researchers add, because they’re hard and non-porous. The most common virus detected in samples taken from security trays was rhinovirus, a common cause of colds. Also lurking were coronavirus, adenovirus, and influenza A, among others; some of these viruses are thought to be able to survive up to two days on similar hard surfaces.

Because security trays probably aren’t going away anytime soon, your best bet is to take germ-protection matters into your own hands. Literally. “[T]he risk of this procedure could be reduced by offering hand sanitization with alcohol handrub before and after security screening, and increasing the frequency of tray disinfection,” the study authors conclude. They also acknowledge that whenever possible, wash your hands with soap instead; it’s more effective than hand sanitizer at eliminating the whole slew of viruses. (It’s probably because hand-washing is taken more seriously in bathrooms that no respiratory viruses were detected there, the researchers add.)

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Yes, you’re told all. the. time. to wash your hands frequently and thoroughly this time of year. But it’s one of the most effective and easiest ways to stop the spread of germs. Try to wash up as soon as you can after you make it through security—and resist touching your eyes, nose, or mouth until you do so. Coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm can’t hurt either.

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