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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fee-Fi-Fomites: Avoiding Germs Like the Plague

Okay, Ladies and Germs:

It's time to improve your word power. Today's lexeme is fomite. What it is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, is an inanimate object (such as a doorknob) that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and serves in their transmission. For the air traveler, fomites are lurking everywhere you look, and even places you don't.

Let's ponder the cribs of fomites at the airport. We'll start with the touch screens on the self-service check-in machines. Next, let's wander over to the elevator and ATM buttons. I like to feel I've escaped relatively unscathed from these areas thanks to the use of knuckles rather than fingertips.

You might want to avoid touching handrails lining stairways and escalators. But admittedly, it's pretty hard to avoid touching the locks on bathroom stalls and the flushing implements on toilets ('nuf said). At the very least, use a paper towel to open the door handle leading you out of the bathroom.

Now, even if you manage to make it through the airport fomite-free, good luck on the airplane, my friend. There's the fomite on your tray table. There's the fomite in your seatback pocket (which is a popular place to stuff used tissues, if you catch my drift). Speaking of drifts, there's the ventilation system to consider. Since you are dealing with recirculated air, the best bet is to avoid using the overhead air vent, which can blow fomites straight into your lungs. Other ventilation notes--air circulation tends to be better toward the front of the plane. So if you sit in the first 10 rows, you are exposed to fewer germs. That said, if a passenger in your row or in three rows behind or in front of you is hacking away, you're screwed, no matter where you are sitting. When you get off that plane, all you can do is take your Emergen-C, use other immunity-strengthening strategies, pray, and get plenty of sleep.

Back to our friends the Fomites. The Fo Fighters are at their mightiest in the airplane lavatory. Ah, yes, those lovely lockers that challenge even the most flexible contortionist when nature calls. Simply put, airplane lavs are disgusting. How often do you see them cleaned during flight? It really makes one question the mental health of those who use said privies to join the Mile-High Club.

But I digress. Even if you wash your hands prior to exiting the W/C, you are not out of the woods. First, consider that the Environmental Protection Agency has found that 17 percent of all water taps on airplanes contain coliform bacteria (and hold that thought as well...we'll get back to it in a minute). So, that water you are using to clean your hands--maybe not so much. Secondly, to escape from the W/C, you must touch that door handle. I have taken to using a towelette to open the escape hatch, so that I don't have to use hand sanitizer upon returning to my seat. (Then I dispose of the fomite-filled towelette in the seatback pocket).

Okay, back to those water taps. Included in the EPA tap list are those in the kitchen galley. That means the water used to make coffee or tea is running through a germ-filled tap 17 percent of the time. And since said water is seldom boiled to the point where germs will be eliminated, consider that your cuppa java may by plagued with pathogens. So, you might want to buy your Starbucks in the airport and bring it on the plane.

Remember, dear reader, I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. But let me proffer a few closing tips for fending off those foul fomites. The best advice I can offer is to be aware of your surroundings, wash frequently, carry hand sanitizer and a brawny supply of paper towels, and run like hell when the person sitting next to you in the waiting area starts sneezing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hahaha! Love it! (Feel free to remove this bit, but in the sentence "Then I dispose of the fomite-filled towelette in the seatback pocket," the towleltte itself is the fomite, as is the table tray [especially its swiveling locking-into-place doodad], and the knob for the recirculated air [not the bugs in the air that's pumped into your face!]) I *am* a doctor, and you'll probably be horrified to know that sometimes I skip washing my hands in the restroom altogether, depending on the facilities, and opt to sanitize once I've escaped. Seriously, I know *my* habits, and if I have to touch a faucet handle to turn off the water, say in a restroom with no paper towels, only air dryers, I'm undoing whatever I just did with soap and water. Ew.