Place The Mask Over Your Nose and Mouth
originally published June 23, 1999 on
copyright 1999 by Joe Harkins - all rights reserved
    I brought back something expensive from my last trip to Europe but it slid past US Customs, undeclared and duty-free. It was so well hidden that no inspector or sniffer dog would have found it. By "expensive" I mean I paid for it daily during the weeks thereafter.

    It was a nasty virus, complete with a stubborn fever, overactive eliminative system and aching joints, followed by a lingering hack that cracked ceilings and set off car alarms in the neighborhood. I blame the airlines for it. I suspect that a few hundred passengers breathing the same air for ten hours is perhaps the most effective disease-spreading environment this side of drinking tap water without a prophylactic dose of bourbon.

    The thin atmosphere at higher altitudes requires that an aircraft compress the air before delivering it to the cabin. Just as running your automobile air conditioner reduces your car's mileage, bringing fresh air into the airplane burns fuel in direct proportion to how frequently it operates. Re-circulated air is cheaper than fresh.

    I believe that re-circulated air in close quarters is where I picked up that upper-respiratory infection. Yes, I've read airline disclaimers alleging that's not likely. But I have the empty medicine bottles and crumpled tissues that say otherwise.

    I'm not alone in complaining that greedy tactics to extract revenue from a virtually defenseless traveling public aren't limited to packing passengers knee-bones to backbone. A Wall Street Journal article ( quotes a study by the World Bank, " . . . travelers file 80% more medical insurance claims than do non-travelers."

    Unfortunately, like too many other articles on the subject, the WSJ piece seems to give more credibility to aviation industry rebuttals than can be justified. Whenever aircraft makers and operators are asked about airborne germs, the standard response is " . . . filters that are now standard in most aircraft are so efficient that they capture particles as minuscule as 0.01-thousandths of an inch, which includes most viruses and bacteria."

    Common sense and simple experience prove the limitations of filtration. You can smell the cologne of a person passing in the aisle. You can smell the food cart when it is rows away. Although air equal in volume to that of the interior space of a modern plane may circulate every 30 to 60 seconds, a detectable portion obviously lingers and is breathed before it is captured by the system.

    It's also worth noting in the report by US News & World Report ( that sneezing, coughing or forceful speech can propel viruses and bacteria up to five feet. Further, those filtration systems often are not functioning when your plane is detained on the ground, as it sometimes is for extended periods.

    It shouldn't be a surprise that airline crews, exposed to these situations daily, have complaints. The Trip (via AP) says (,1355,1-4-3_1724,00.html) that cabin crews working on the McDonald Douglas MD-80 have been complaining for ten years that toxic fumes are making them sick.

    The issues of passenger air quality aren't limited to headaches. Congressional testimony ( by Alan R. Hinman, M.D., M.P.H. Director, Center for Disease Control, is scary reading. It reports cases of air cabin transmitted tuberculosis and adds, "We estimate that there are 10-15 million persons infected with TB in the United States today." 

    That's roughly ten times the cumulative number of HIV-positive cases reported for all of North America during the entire 20-odd years of that epidemic; it's more than twice the number of HIV cases currently estimated throughout the entire world. And TB is a lot more infectious.

    Similarly grave concerns are addressed by the conference report ( of the National Association of Physicians for the Environment. Scroll down to the sub-headline about cabin air quality.

    What's being done? The most recent convention of ASHRAE, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, proposes improved standards for air quality inside most commercial aircraft ( If you'd like to explore what the Federal Aviation Authority is saying about it, check out the files available on FedWorld (

    Meanwhile, it's stifling in here. Maybe a flight attendant can help me get this window open. It's been stuck shut since we took off.