Hal Levin, a Santa Cruz, California, indoor-air expert and chairman of an American Society of Testing & Materials indoor-air subcommittee, agrees. "Your worst risk of exposure is the person next to you," he says. "The people in front of you are a slight risk, too, because air tends to travel toward the back on planes."
In 1995 the Centers for Disease Control reported the only known case of passenger-to-passenger transmission of tuberculosis—a true airborne disease—on a U.S. commercial flight. The four people who were infected inhaled tiny droplets when a fellow passenger coughed beside them, a scenario, the CDC noted, that could have taken place on a train, a cruise ship, or any other form of public transportation. (The four infected travelers never actually developed the illness.)
At press time, the medical community still knew relatively little about the mechanics of SARS transmission, but, as with any illness, being in close proximity to an infected individual could increase your risk of catching the disease. Luckily, there are things you can do now to minimize your exposure to germs while on board (see below). And more information is on the way. The National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health is currently conducting a study on the flow of air in planes; it should shed more light on how airborne illnesses are actually spread—and how you can better protect yourself.
T+L TIPS: HOW TO STAY HEALTHY ON PLANES
Avoid touching your face. • If someone near you—in your row or directly in front of or behind you—is coughing or sneezing, inquire about changing seats. • Don't walk around the plane too much; it increases your contact with other people. • Use a nasal mister filled with filtered water, such as the MADomizer (www.entspray.com) or Entsol's refillable bottle (www.entsolwash.com); this makes your cilia, your built-in filters against microbes, work more effectively. • Use alcohol wipes—such as BD Alcohol Swabs, available in pharmacies—on your hands and any surfaces that you'll be touching frequently, including the armrest and tray table.