It should come as no surprise, then, that the airport — a place that many, many, many people visit every day — is also pretty filthy. A new study from InsuranceQuotes.com found that there’s one place in particular where the germs are partying hard: the self check-in kiosk.
The Texas-based company performed a swab test on six different surfaces at three major U.S. airports (the only one they named was Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta). Every surface was swabbed three times; the testers then calculated the average of the number of bacteria and fungal cells per square — known as colony-forming units — on each surface.
The self-service check-in kiosks tested were the biggest offenders, with 253,857 CFU. For comparison’s sake, the average home toilet seat has 172 CFU, according to the study authors.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Well I’ll just wait in line to get my boarding pass from now on,’ you won’t fare much better. The minute you take a load off and sit by your gate, you’ll come into contact with 21,630 CFU by way of the chair’s armrest.
If you still think you can beat the germ-infested system by not touching anything and buying a ton of hand sanitizer at one of the terminal stores, think again: A 2012 study from St. Petersburg College found that 50% of credit cards contain MRSA, a strain of bacterium that can lead to staph infections. Cash is not king in this case, as 80% of paper bills were contaminated.
So what’s a travel-loving germaphobe to do in this sickly situation? In the case of communal surfaces, like armrests and tray tables, writer and self-proclaimed germaphobe Rachel Chang suggests using a napkin as a barrier to touch any item you may need — whether that’s a water fountain button or a ketchup bottle. Chang says bringing a napkin from home, rather than taking one from a communal dispenser, is your best bet.
For something like that dirty check-in kiosk, Chang recommends using your sleeve as a barrier, though we’ve yet to test whether the digital screens can register human touch through a sweater. Philip Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs and a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU, told Chang that sanitizing wipes are always a good idea (for tray tables, headrests, seat belts and toilet flushers).
What’s important to know is that germs are inevitable — and some of them are necessary for human health. Washing your hands is an easy measure you can take to keep from getting sick: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself. Just don’t use a loofah to do it.