In the Martin Scorsese film
, engineer and entrepreneur Howard Hughes (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio) lets his germ phobia get the better of him. By the movie's end, he creates a germ-free environment by sequestering himself in a room, too paranoid to venture out into the unclean world.
I couldn't help but wonder if the time Hughes spent in and around airplanes perpetuated his bug fear. Maybe he saw things normal passengers don't (or maybe, he just saw things).
Fear of invisible airplane germs is often a dread for frequent, and even occasional, flyers, eclipsing grimy bus station restrooms and escalator rails.
Getting somewhat apprehensive about my next cross-country flight, I consulted some different experts to assess the threat, both for my own peace of mind and for my faithful readers.
The Yuck Barrier
When Leslie Danelian started long-distance dating her future husband, they compared dirty plane stories as the air miles racked up. Besides sitting in ketchup and baby formula, Danelian's clothes just smelled funky when she disembarked.
"I wear short skirts a lot because I'm from California," she says, explaining how her skin crawled at the thought of her legs touching whatever was on that seat.
"There are covers for everything, why not for airplane seats?" Danelian wondered as flight attendants told her more horror stories of skin and nasal excretions stuck to seats, and a high frequency of passengers picking up lice and even bedbugs (which can travel back to your home couch or mattress).
"You don't want to know," was the reply Danelian received when she asked one stewardess how often the seats were cleaned.
While airline employee accounts vary from yearly to four-month cleanings, savvy travelers realize that cloth airplane seats aren't the cleanest, says Danelian. This may be one reason why
has leather seats, which are easy to wipe down.
In order to sit comfortably without the heebie-jeebies, Danelian made herself a denim seat cover, which shielded her skin from whatever lurked underneath. Soon the requests from fellow passengers began flooding in.
Now she and her husband, Rick Berge, sell covers of all kinds through their company
Plane Sheets. The covers range from polypropylene disposable (and recyclable) double packs ($12.99) to luxe, machine-washable chenille covers ($29.99). The first-class and coach-sized covers fit the seats of almost any major airline, from
Danelian's customers bring up concerns ranging from a child's food allergies to lice.
The covers are mainly for people who want to put up a barrier between themselves and the thousands of other people who have sat in that seat," Danelian explains.
"I'm not a doctor, but you can put two and two together," says Danelian, who has talked to many people about the plane-germ concern. And "I will tell you that I never get sick when I travel."
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Alison Duquette says flying doesn't pose more germ threats than your everyday life situations. She advises passengers to drink plenty of water, not alcohol, because of the dry cabin air. Other than that, "use the same kind of common sense as sitting in close proximity to anyone else," says Duquette.
Despite misconceptions, aircraft air is actually cleaner than air in any office building, Duquette claims. Cabin air exchanges between 10 and 20 times an hour while office-building air only changes two to four times an hour.
Additionally, 75% of the U.S. airplane fleet is equipped with HEPA filters.
Other preventive measures passengers want to take, she says, are a personal choice.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addresses another common concern among passengers: Influenza, or the flu. Transmission of the infection aboard aircraft due to proximity of source has been documented. According to the CDC, "Because influenza viruses are very adept at changing, there is concern that this strain could eventually become a threat and thus affect air travel."
But the flu threat isn't specific to air travel -- movie theaters, subways and any public, heavily peopled place can provide similar risks of exposure.
While you probably won't get sick from air travel alone, you can still eliminate the ick factor. How far you want to go is up to you.
Stan Weinberg, chairman and CEO of
Wein Products, swears by his Personal Air Supply Wearable Air Purifier, which has been featured in in-flight magazines for the last 12 years.
The device, worn around the neck like a pendant, charges the air electronically, creating a zone around the wearer's head that eliminates up to 90% of particles, including everything from viruses to pollen to dust. Basically, it reduces the chance you will pick up someone else's cold or virus, says Weinberg.
While Weinberg doesn't make any medical claims, he gets thousands of commendations from customers who no longer get sick after or during flights. His Web site features numerous studies in favor of the device, including a study by the University of Cincinnati.
At $150 apiece, Weinberg calls the purifier "the first line of inhalation defense against viruses and bacteria."
For those of you willing to brave the Michael Jackson jokes, Weinberg also offers the $6 ViraMask, a medical-grade disposable mask soon to be approved by the CDC with a N99 rating.
The N99 means that the mask allows less than 1% of viruses and bacteria to go through because it sticks to the face much like a Band-Aid, eliminating leaks around facial contours. Most medical masks have a 5% to 15% leak rate.
And for eye and nose irritation due to dry air, use saline eye drops and nasal spray. To help strengthen your immune system, or maybe to just give you piece of mind, the ever-popular
Emergen-C elixirs claim to work wonders.
In the end, the airborne precautions you take will depend on whom you believe and your level of comfort with what lurks onboard -- both real and imagined.
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