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Your Nose and Mouth
no - it's not a hairpiece, just a bad haircut
by Joe Harkins - Jun 23, '99

    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 breathing the same air for ten hours in the close company of a few hundred airplane passengers is perhaps the most risky disease-spreading activity 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 much is imported. 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 backbones. 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 suggest 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 be filtered 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 that US News & World Report says 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) reveals that cabin crews working on the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 have been complaining for ten years that toxic fumes are making them sick.

    Potential problems aren't limited to headaches. Congressional testimony by Dr. Alan R. Hinman, M.D., M.P.H. Director, Center for Disease Control, is scary reading. It reports cases of cabin air 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.

    Similar 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.



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