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What Really Makes You Sick on Airplanes?

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You made it through airport security in record time, got a seat upgrade and managed to actually find some empty space in the overhead bin directly above your seat. You’ve determined that this might be the greatest flight experience of your life… and then it happens: Just as the flight attendant concludes his safety demonstration, you hear a passenger launch into a sneezing fit. Within the enclosed space of an airplane, it’s the only sound worse than a baby crying — and you convince yourself that, in a matter of minutes, that lone passenger’s germs will engulf you like a bad perfume. The good news? In most cases, it’s simply not true.

In the below video from SciShow, host Olivia Gordon takes on the topic of airplanes and air quality in an effort to prove that aircrafts aren’t the “giant germ incubators” (her words) they’re so often accused of being.

As Gordon explains, approximately 50 percent of the air on most airplanes is repeatedly filtered and recirculated throughout the flight, but the remaining air is fresh air, which makes its way into the cabin via the engine’s compressors. The recycled air that you are breathing in is being filtered before it makes its way back to you, typically through a High-Efficiency Particulate Air — or HEPA — filter, the same kind you find in hospitals.

“What’s more,” Gordon says, “the air that comes out of the vent above your head leaves the cabin through a grill along the wall in or very near your row. This means the air isn’t flowing forward or backwards through the plane.” Which means that unless the passenger in question happens to be your seat or row mate, you’ll likely be spared the same sneezy fate. And even that close proximity could prove less detrimental to your health in the near future; earlier this year, 17-year-old Raymond Wang unveiled a device that he claims could improve the amount of fresh air by up to 190 percent and significantly reduce the amount of airborne germs — all at a cost of about $1,000 per aircraft.

Perhaps surprisingly, you’re more likely to get sick from touching the overhead air vent itself than by breathing in the air coming out of it. Last year, Travelmath dispatched a microbiologist to determine the germiest places on an airplane; the overhead air vents contained more germs than the lavatory flush button or the seatbelt buckle. The grossest thing on the airplane? That tray table you rely on for everything. (Remember that the next time you give a fellow passenger a strange look for having some disinfectant wipes at the ready.)

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