Don't Wing It!
Should you wear a pollution mask when flying?
When we think about air pollution and the damage it does to our health, we usually conjure up images of commonly known dangers, such as dirty diesel fumes from cars or great plumes of smoggy factory smoke. However, we need to think outside the box when monitoring our lung health because so much of modern life is surprisingly toxic. One common situation you may not have considered to be a respiratory a health hazard is when flying on a plane.
We have all become very accustomed to aeroplanes and their amazing technology which allows us to travel anywhere in the world, whether it be a short hop to a neighbouring province or a long-haul flight around the globe. Most of us can’t afford private jets and must instead travel by commercial air liners with hundreds of other passengers. We share the air that we breathe with everyone on board. That means we share the air we breathe in and the air we breathe out, including an incredible array of bacteria and viruses that are freeloading passengers on and inside every one of us.
Most germs are pretty common and won’t cause the average, healthy person much harm. Yet for people with certain medical conditions, any contact with bacteria can be quite dangerous and there are literally hundreds of cold related viruses floating about that can threaten one’s immune system. In any case, you wouldn’t want to be that unlucky someone who breathed in a particular strain of virus and had your holiday ruined by a horrid cold.
The air we breathe on flights can actually be fairly clean. Newer aeroplanes recirculate air through high-quality HEPA filters somewhere between 20 and 30 times an hour. These filters can reportedly clean up to 99.99% of bacteria out of the air. Since only newer aeroplanes utilize these filters, it can be difficult to know which planes can provide you with a flight full of fresh air. Budget airlines and those with older fleets are much less likely to have good quality air filters on board.
The other thing you need to bear in mind is the whereabouts of your seat on the plane in relation to the air inlet. Most commercial aeroplanes are divided into several compartments. Each compartment will usually receive clean air at the front, which will then circulate to the back section. So good news if you are sitting in the bulk-head seats or right at the front of the plane. However, if you’re sitting further back you may still be inhaling the germs from Mr. Sneezey in seat 38A or the bacteria from the constantly coughing women in 12F. No matter how excellent the plane’s filters are, they simply can’t filter all the air before it reaches you.
Another problem is that the air we breathe while flying is low humidity. Humidity in the air keeps your airways moist so the lining can help trap germs trying to enter your body. When the air you’re breathing is too dry, the mucus in your airway can’t do its job and viruses or bacteria can enter more freely leaving you at greater risk of a compromised respiratory system.
Another potential issue is a contentious problem known as Aerotoxic Syndrome. You may not be aware that the air one breathes on most planes has been taken directly from the engines and is rather ominously known as ‘Bleed Air’ by industry experts. There are a few exceptions out there, such as the Boeing 787, which purportedly uses "bleed-free technology". Since the 1950s, it has been recognised that bleed air can become contaminated with engine oils and/or hydraulic fluid.
According to figures from the Civil Aviation Authority, there have been more than 1,300 reports of smoke or fumes inside a British airline operated large passenger aircraft since 2010. Depending on your travel plans, you may have the misfortune of experiencing a one-off fume exposure event when oil fumes from the engine accidentally make their way into the cabin. Frequent flyers and airline staff are regularly exposed to low level pollutants over the long term in the skies. Crew members and passengers have been reporting both short and long term health effects as a consequence of exposure to contaminated air. Symptoms related to aerotoxic syndrome are wide ranging and can include: migraines, fatigue, difficulty thinking, aches and pains in joints and muscles, breathing problems and digestive problems.
However, the scientific community cannot come to an agreement about the existence of this problem. A full review of the available evidence concluded that the chemical levels in the aircraft were lower than what is widely considered as a safe level and that hyperventilation or individual sensitivity to smells may explain certain symptoms. Whether scientifically sanctioned as a threat or not, it nevertheless remains important to think about the quality of air that you will be breathing while you are flying.
So what might help?
Wearing a high quality air filtration mask is a great place to start. If you choose the correct type of mask, it should be able to filter out many of the chemicals that arise from bleed air contamination and also the germs from other passengers. To get the optimal effect, the mask should be the correct size and situated properly on one’s face to prevent bad air from being breathed in around the sides. Choosing a comfortable mask can go a long way toward alleviating any additional irritations in what is already a cramped and claustrophobic environment.
There’s no money back guarantee when booking most flights if you come down with the sniffles and it is simply unrealistic to ask a ticket holder not to travel if they’ve caught a common cold. However, if you are sick and you’ve got places to jet set off to, wear a mask to avoid spreading your misery among the innocent and unwitting aboard the plane. All passengers should also stock up on travel sized hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to mitigate the chances of accidental contamination.
The pull down trays on planes are notoriously teeming with bacteria and since that is what you’ll be eating off until you hit the tarmac, it is definitely wise to give it a wipe. Common sense steps to give your immune system a helping hand include keeping well hydrated - and yes that does mean replacing your lovely latte or last minute tequila slammer with a big, old bottle of H2O because caffeine and alcohol will increase your body’s increase dehydration levels. Also consider using a saline nasal spray as this will help to keep the membranes in your nose moist and may reduce the risk of a respiratory infection. Before your trip, be your best self and make time to both rest and eat sensibly to support your body’s health.