Study Finds Airport Security Trays Carry Germs For Cold And Flu : Short Wave Hint: it's not the bathroom. Niina Ikonen and Carita Savolainen-Kopra from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare studied high-traffic areas in the Helsinki airport to identify where germs were most prevalent. Also, tips on how to stay healthy during your holiday travel. Here's their original paper in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases. Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia. Email the show at

One Of The Germiest Places In The Airport

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Maddie Sofia here. So maybe by now, you've completed at least one leg of your holiday travel. Me - I was just at the airport a couple of weeks ago, but I kind of wish I had known about today's episode before that.

NIINA IKONEN: Maybe you were more comfortable at the airport. And now that you didn't...

SOFIA: (Laughter) That's a good point. You're right. Maybe it is good.

So let me introduce you...

IKONEN: Hello.

SOFIA: ...To Niina.

IKONEN: I'm Niina Ikonen.

SOFIA: Nina and her colleague...

CARITA SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: This is Carita Savolainen-Kopra.

SOFIA: ...Carita are microbiologists in Helsinki.

IKONEN: In Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare.

SOFIA: And a couple of years back, they got to thinking about how we don't have a ton of scientific studies looking at how infectious disease spreads in what Niina and Carita call major hubs - ports, train stations, airports; where we spend a lot of time during the holidays. So they worked out a study to look at germs in their hometown airport in Helsinki.

IKONEN: And you should remember that even though we have just looked at the airports, in Christmastime, we have to remember that all malls...

SOFIA: Ugh (ph), malls.


IKONEN: ...And what we call the Christmas shopping, and there is very much frequently touched places, people coughing. And...

SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: Yes. It's also high time - for us then, this is also high time for viruses.


SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. Well, I try not to go to the malls at all. That's my approach.


SOFIA: So today we'll talk about how to keep yourself healthy while you're out there making holiday moves, mall or otherwise, and the location Niina and Carita say is one of the germier (ph) places in the airport.


SOFIA: So the first thing about this study is it's really small, so keep that in mind. Carita and Niina made it clear that it's a preliminary study and that they want to do more studies like it. But like we said earlier, it's one of the very few studies looking at germs specifically in airports, so let's talk about it. The study was done at Helsinki's main airport, which is the largest airport in Finland, in the winter of 2016 - a very germy time. Niina and Carita were part of a team looking specifically for respiratory viruses like the cold and the flu, and they wanted to point out to me that Helsinki is a pretty nice airport.

IKONEN: It is also the point where passengers travel through when they go, for example, in other European countries.

SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: Yeah. We felt that we would catch quite a large number of passengers going through.



SOFIA: So Niina, Carita and some colleagues analyzed the airport to find the most frequently touched surfaces.

IKONEN: And where the passenger density is high.

SOFIA: They zeroed in on stairs, elevators, bathrooms, security checkpoints, a kids' play area and tested those surfaces multiple times a day.

IKONEN: That the time peaks when the passenger is highest - the early morning peak and the noon peak and mid-afternoon peak.

SOFIA: You know, those times of day when you especially love being in the airport.

SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: In a way, we caught the most dirty times of the day.

IKONEN: Yes, yes.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah. So let's go to the thing that I think most people are going to be wondering, which is, which parts of the airport, you know, should I not (laughter) be touching my face right after, should I not be, like, licking my hands after I go through?

IKONEN: Well, of course, the children playground because we know that children, even though they are not symptomatic, has some virus infection.

SOFIA: So yeah, OK. We know this. Children are petri dishes. But there's another germy spot that you might not think about as you make your way through the airport.

IKONEN: The places where we found the most of the viruses are the plastic security trays.

SOFIA: Those plastic trays for your laptop or your shoes at the security checkpoint - now, this was a small sample in a single airport. But in half of the trays Niina and Carita analyzed, they found signs of respiratory viruses, such as rhino virus, aka the common cold, and a strain of the flu.

IKONEN: Because if you think about trays - go through all the time, and many passenger have to touch. You haven't enough time to wash all the trays.

SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: And it's something that you really can't avoid touching. And people are standing there and queuing, and they are sneezing and coughing at the same time as the trays are open there. And also, in many of the trays, there are several surfaces where there are some cavities there.


SOFIA: Right. And I don't necessarily know this, but I anticipate that in a lot of airports, those aren't cleaned frequently as they're going around.

IKONEN: Yes, because you don't know which one of us has infection. We can't be infected by influenza virus even though we haven't, not yet, the symptoms.


IKONEN: So if we want to be sure, we should wash the trays all the time...


IKONEN: ...After each touch. I think it's impossible to do it.

SOFIA: So security tray - germy; actually, germier in terms of respiratory viruses than the toilets that Niina and Carita tested. So what happens when you're going through security and you just touched a tray that is definitely nasty? Well, you might reach for hand sanitizer; one of those little travel-sized ones, where the active ingredient is alcohol - not a bad option but not the best. The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water whenever possible because it reduces the amounts of all types of germs and chemicals on your little paws - some germs that hand sanitizers aren't so good at killing. If hand sanitizer is your only option, use one with at least 60% alcohol. And make sure you're using enough of it.

SAVOLAINEN-KOPRA: So, basically, the means that you can do are those that were taught in all homes by parents - that you have to wash your hands and not touch your mouth in order to protect your environment and others; not to cough and sneeze on your hand and also not to shake hands in order to mitigate your risk because wherever there are people, there will be infections, and there will be pathogens.

SOFIA: Pathogens are everywhere, people - a holiday message from SHORT WAVE.

All right. Well, this was fun. I appreciate you both. Have a good day.


IKONEN: Thanks.





SOFIA: Thanks so much to Niina Ikonen and Carita Savolainen-Kopra at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare and to the folks at Yle News in Helsinki. This episode was produced by Brit Hanson and Brent Baughman and edited by Viet Le.

I'm Maddie Sofia, and we're back tomorrow with more SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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