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Bugs Fly on Planes Too

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"What we are hoping is that the airlines do the right thing," says AFA President Patricia Friend. "We are hoping that pressure from customers will cause them to do what they need to do," she tells WebMD.

The AFA gives UNITE a powerful voice. They have been running a successful media campaign since 1984 asking for high-grade air filters on all commercial jets.

That campaign has received media attention thanks to an engineering group that has been studying cabin air quality, in part, as result of the AFA members' complaints. The filters already are used voluntarily on most commercial jets. But the recommendation by the cabin air committee of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers has given it a boost.

The organization's members design and maintain airline heating and air systems. The committee includes plane makers, pilots, flight attendants, and airline officials, whose past recommendations have led to binding rules.

Yet, once again, researchers say that while high-grade filters are a nice touch, odds are that the cabin air itself is not responsible for getting people sick.

"The risk of contracting an infectious disease from the aircraft itself is minimal," says Jolanda Janczewski, PhD, MPH, president of Consolidated Safety Service, an independent consulting firm. Janczewski's firm has now conducted two studies into the issue.

"Those studies found that the levels of circulating bacteria and fungus were much lower than other places with circulated air, such as an office building," she tells WebMD. Janczewski adds that the flight attendants claims are probably not unfounded -- but most likely do not represent a distinct risk to passengers.

"Sitting in close proximity to another sick passenger seems to be the largest risk," she tells WebMD.

But the AFA is seeking more evidence. In 1994, the group successfully lobbied Congress to mandate a long-term study into infectious disease and air quality. More recently, it has petitioned Congress to also mandate a short-term study to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, upon which new regulations could be based.

Still, "there is nothing to date to demonstrate the presence of pollutants on an aircraft that can adversely affect a passenger's health," Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Authority, tells WebMD. Dorr adds that the FAA will not take action unless such a danger can be demonstrated. "We, as a regulatory agency, have to base our rules on hard data," he says.

That bodes badly for UNITE, who would like to pressure the FAA and Department of Transportation to also regulate the airlines' laundry service. But unlike the flight attendants, the union of laundry workers does not even have a pending study on which to pin their hopes.

However, that lack of evidence does not mean airline passengers are completely out of the woods, cautions Rayman. Research has shown that the increase in air pressure and dry air in the cabin may be contributing to medical complications, from which passengers and workers are both at risk. Research has also shown that crowding passengers might place them at risk for things like rare, but serious, blood clots in the leg, Rayman notes.

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