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Bugs Fly on Planes Too

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"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.

But the vast majority of passengers do reach their destination none the worse off, Rayman adds. This means, he tells WebMD, that it might prove impossible to change the status quo.

Nevertheless, passengers could take some proactive actions to at least reduce the risk of transmitting disease, Janczewski points out. For example, the common courtesy of using a Kleenex while sneezing would go a long way toward preventing the spread of disease. Airlines could also take proactive action by training their workers in sanitation, and perhaps allowing flight attendants to wear gloves, she tells WebMD.

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