The following article by Dr. D.S. Walkinshaw appeared as a guest commentary in the Naple News, published on both the East and West coasts of Florida, and previously appeared on the Indoor Air Technologies blog.

Guest commentary: Germs, flying and the truth

By Douglas S. Walkinshaw, Bonita Springs, Dec 7, 2009

The public can be served better than to have spokespersons tell us, as they have since the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) concern, it’s a myth that people are more prone to getting sick from flying due to germs circulating in the air.

The research has not been done.

The spokespersons then cite misleading information, such as aircraft ventilation is great because it recirculates air through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters like those used in hospitals. They say air-change rates are 18 times higher than in buildings, and air does not circulate between rows.

Relevant facts give a different view.

Regarding ventilation rates, in spite of the HEPA filters, ventilation engineering equations indicate that airborne-pathogen concentrations will be at least four times higher than in typical office environments even though their air changes are higher. This is because aircraft cabin ventilation and recirculation rates per person are lower than in buildings, and buildings use recirculation filters that, while not as efficient as HEPAs, remove more particles because the flows through them are 10 times higher.

On top of this, and because their occupancy density (the numbers of persons per unit volume of space) is 40 times higher than in an office building, aircraft-cabin pathogen concentrations reach their peak equilibrium values sooner, with the result that time-weighted exposure ratios are about five times higher than in offices for the same source strength. As another comparison, passenger-aircraft cabin occupancy densities are over three times higher than those of classrooms.

Regarding air movement between cabin occupants, the aircraft-cabin ventilation system not only moves air in a circular fashion side-to-side, which is bad enough as this movement can pass some of the air exhaled by one person in a row past others in the same row. It can also pass a portion of each person’s exhaled air six or more rows forward and the same number backwards (if there are that many rows available) due to the turbulence induced at the boundaries of the air supply and the fundamental instability of most indoor air flows, including those in aircraft cabins.

Sneezing and occupant movement can also create air movement fore and aft.

To add to this, research published in 2007 indicates that low humidity air such as occurs in aircraft cabins, particularly on long flights, increases the potential for influenza infections when a source is present.

In September of this year, the U.S. Transportation Research Board combined with the National Academy of Sciences to hold a symposium of key infectious-disease professionals on the subject. Researchers presented findings on the movement of particles and infections between rows fore and aft of the source, demonstrating that there are no systems or measures in place to prevent the spread of infectious disease over several rows.

Several researchers observed that window seats were less prone to disease transfer than aisle seats. One study found influenza virus in the exhaled normal breath of some infected persons, indicating that coughing is not the only potential source of infectious aerosols.

In conclusion, it would be helpful for everyone if spokespersons were to honestly say that while the risk of getting a respiratory infection from either hand-to-face contact or airborne movement versus other environments is not yet known, and while it may be safer onboard aircraft than in other crowded public transportation environments (that research has not been done yet either), there are some simple-to-implement safety measures recommended for us all.

Pre-flight, these are: immunization shots; rest; and the purchase of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and face breathing masks.

In flight, these are: if you are ill, wear a mask to protect others (airlines might even offer these to coughers); cough into your sleeve; don’t touch your face with your hands (wearing a mask helps here also); periodically disinfect/sanitize your hands and your surroundings (hard surfaces such as the tray table, arm rests and magazines); don’t face your neighbor when talking; use an open cup of water to raise the humidity in your breathing zone; and point your overhead air vent (if there is one) between you and a neighbor (do not point it at your face) to help prevent any exchange of airborne pathogens and to draw any towards the floor returns where they can be exhausted or filtered out.

These measures can be simply and easily described by flight attendants as part of the safety instructions given at the beginning of the flight.

Walkinshaw is a professional engineer and holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering. He owns three companies involved in indoor air-quality investigations and ventilation technologies. He is a fellow of the 50,000-member American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and is a member of the Academy of Fellows of the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate. He lives in Bonita Springs, Ottawa and Prince Edward Island, Canada.