The plastic trays used at airport security checkpoints have been found to harbour the highest levels of viruses at airports, in a scientific investigation by pandemic experts. The study was carried out by a team of experts from the University of Nottingham and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare who swabbed a variety of surfaces at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport in Finland during the winter of 2016.
The team set out to identify and quantify the respiratory viruses on frequently-touched surfaces in airports. They found evidence of viruses on 10 per cent of the surfaces tested and most commonly on the plastic trays that are circulated along the passenger queue at the hand luggage X-ray checkpoint.
The investigation concludes that hand washing and careful coughing hygiene are crucial to the control of contagious infections in public areas with high volumes of people passing through.
The study was part of a larger EU-funded research project called PANDHUB which explored the role of airports and other traffic hubs in the spread of serious infections. The findings add weight to previous studies showing that microbes are commonly found on surfaces in public transport vehicles and will strengthen public health advice in preparation for future flu pandemics.
At Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, the highest concentration of viruses was detected on the security check plastic trays with further viruses detected on shop payment terminals, staircase rails, passport checking counters, children’s play areas and in the air.
The most common virus found in the survey was rhinovirus, which causes the common cold but the swabs also picked up the influenza A virus. Interestingly, no respiratory viruses were found on toilet surfaces.
Jonathan Van Tam, professor of health protection from the university’s School of Medicine, said: “This study supports the case for improved public awareness of how viral infections spread. People can help to minimise contagion by hygienic hand washing and coughing into a hankerchief, tissue or sleeve at all times but especially in public places. These simple precautions can help prevent pandemics and are most important in crowded areas like airports that have a high volume of people travelling to and from many different parts of the world.”
Virology expert Niina Ikonen from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare said: “The presence of microbes in the environment of an airport has not been investigated previously. The new findings support preparedness planning for controlling the spread of serious infectious diseases in airports. The results also provide new ideas for technical improvements in airport design and refurbishment.”
The airport study was carried out during and after peak passenger density at the airport by a method which detects genetic material from viruses on surfaces and in the air. The results provided by this method do not prove that the viruses found on surfaces and air are alive and cause disease, but previous experimental research has proven that many microbes survive on various surface materials up to several days.
Background: International and national travelling has made the rapid spread of infectious diseases possible. Little information is available on the role of major traffic hubs, such as airports, in the transmission of respiratory infections, including seasonal influenza and a pandemic threat. We investigated the presence of respiratory viruses in the passenger environment of a major airport in order to identify risk points and guide measures to minimize transmission.
Methods: Surface and air samples were collected weekly at three different time points during the peak period of seasonal influenza in 2015–16 in Finland. Swabs from surface samples, and air samples were tested by real-time PCR for influenza A and B viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus, rhinovirus and coronaviruses (229E, HKU1, NL63 and OC43).
Results: Nucleic acid of at least one respiratory virus was detected in 9 out of 90 (10%) surface samples, including: a plastic toy dog in the children’s playground (2/3 swabs, 67%); hand-carried luggage trays at the security check area (4/8, 50%); the buttons of the payment terminal at the pharmacy (1/2, 50%); the handrails of stairs (1/7, 14%); and the passenger side desk and divider glass at a passport control point (1/3, 33%). Among the 10 respiratory virus findings at various sites, the viruses identified were: rhinovirus (4/10, 40%, from surfaces); coronavirus (3/10, 30%, from surfaces); adenovirus (2/10, 20%, 1 air sample, 1 surface sample); influenza A (1/10, 10%, surface sample).
Conclusions: Detection of pathogen viral nucleic acids indicates respiratory viral surface contamination at multiple sites associated with high touch rates, and suggests a potential risk in the identified airport sites. Of the surfaces tested, plastic security screening trays appeared to pose the highest potential risk, and handling these is almost inevitable for all embarking passengers.
Niina Ikonen, Carita Savolainen-Kopra, Joanne E Enstone, Ilpo Kulmala, Pertti Pasanen, Anniina Salmela, Satu Salo, Jonathan S Nguyen-Van-Tam, Petri Ruutu
[link url="https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/news/pressreleases/2018/september/airport-security-plastic-trays-harbour-highest-levels-of-viruses-study-finds.aspx"]University of Nottingham material[/link]
[link url="https://bmcinfectdis.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12879-018-3150-5"]BMC Infectious Disease abstract[/link]