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Bugs Fly on Planes Too

WebMD Health News

Nov. 21, 2000 -- Thanksgiving is just around the corner, but in this heavy travel season, groups representing airline employees are working hard to ensure that turkey is not the only bird on the minds of Americans.

In the past few days, these groups have managed to highlight several issues, all of which they say represent a potential risk to the health of both airline passengers and workers alike.

Among these is the potential for the passengers to fall ill as a result of poorly filtered ventilation systems. And also there's the potential for passengers to get sick because of poor sanitary practices of the nation's largest airline laundry service.

According to the Union of Needle Trade and Textile Employees, or UNITE, Royal Airline Laundry does not wash blankets or pillows used by passengers, but simply repackages them for reuse. Royal Airline Laundry is responsible for cleaning airline linens for more than 150 carriers at 20 airports. UNITE said at a press conference Monday that they were concerned about this practice in at least two facilities.

UNITE is the nation's largest apparel and textile union. It represents over 25,000 workers, including 200 Royal Airline employees that have also accused the Inglewood, N.Y.-based company of running a sweatshop. But these latest allegations follow two television stories, in which laboratory analysis of blankets, pillowcases, and headsets from several airlines found the presence of at least two known germs.

"Certainly that occurrence of bacteria is an indication of a problem," Eric Furman, director of UNITE's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, tells WebMD. "The fact that the blankets aren't clean raises questions."

But some experts say UNITE, along with other airline employee-based organizations, might just be creating a problem where one doesn't exist.

Although for esthetic reasons alone it would be nice to have a clean blanket, odds are against the blankets being able to transmit disease, says Russell Rayman, MD, executive director of the Aerospace Medical Association. The association is the world's largest of medical specialists in the fields of aviation, space, and environmental medicine.

Anything is possible, Rayman says, but considering that both bacteria and viruses need hosts to survive, even if the blankets and pillows were not cleaned, they probably would not be capable of transmitting an infectious disease, Rayman tells WebMD.

Moreover, Royal Airline Laundry "categorically denies the baseless allegations" from UNITE. They write in a statement that they provide the "highest level of hygienically cleaned linen and blankets." They add that their laundry is constantly monitored by state-of-the-art equipment and the allegations are UNITE's ploy to force its union into parts of the company that are currently non-union

Still, UNITE has found a powerful ally. Joining UNITE at the press conference was the Association of Flight Attendants, or AFA.

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