The big 'virus hot zone' at airports

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Flu season has arrived right on schedule, and if you are planning to fly this holiday season, you could catch the bug right at the airport.

Now, many are wondering, how will this season compare to last year when an estimated 80,000 Americans died from flu complications including 435 within Minnesota?

Public health officials have said air travel can play a major role in how fast and how far diseases like the flu spread.

“Certainly airport travel really accentuated and probably accelerated the spread of that novel in 2009, H1N1 Virus,” said Dr. Alison Galdys from the University of Minnesota Infection Prevention.

That 2009 flu pandemic killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide.


Patty Lanting is recovering from her first cold of the season.

“I feel bad for the two people next to me [on the plane] because I was in the middle, she said. “All I could do was blow my nose.”

She believes she picked it up either at the airport or on the recent flight from MSP to Florida.

“I just wanted to get some cold medicine in me and go to bed,” she added.


Flu and cold viruses can survive on surfaces for hours, even a couple of days. New research points to where travelers are most likely to find "virus hot zones" in airports.

European scientists tested a variety of surfaces that are frequently touched in terminal buildings, including things like toilet handles, armrests in waiting areas, kiosk screens and handrails on escalators.

They found the highest potential exposure risk came from those plastic bins we all use at the security checkpoints.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International, tens of thousands of passengers and workers pass through security every day.

Check point sources tell Fox 9 people dump everything from dentures, inhalers, toothbrushes, dirty shoes, to children’s pacifiers and diaper bags into those bins on a regular basis. Rarely, if ever, are the trays cleaned.

In the European study, half of the security bin samples tested positive for flu and cold viruses.

The germs can survive on plastic or stainless steel surfaces for up to 48 hours.

Other bugs like Norovirus, a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, can survive for weeks.

“Studies have shown that not only can they survive, but they can be picked up and transmitted to someone else who then develops illness,” said Galdys.

Fox 9 asked TSA why the bins are not periodically cleaned. The agency declined an interview and said passengers concerned with cleanliness should travel with hand sanitizer and consider washing their hands after going through security.


Health experts advise people to be mindful of how often they touch their faces. 

Studies show people do it subconsciously as often as three to five times an hour.

If there is a cold or flu bug on someone’s hand and they rub their eyes, nose or mouth it has a direct pathway to the respiratory track and the person gets sick.

As the masses line up to go through airport security this holiday season, perhaps the greatest threat to someone’s health and safety is something that won't show up on an x-ray machine. Instead, it is possible some microscopic pathogen is living on those plastic trays, just waiting to stow away with you on your next flight.