Q: I just heard about a new report that says airliners are flying health hazards. I fly at least 10 times a year and I've never gotten sick. What's the real deal? — Max F., Sacramento, California
A: We know the report. It's called something like “The Sky is Falling” — just kidding. It's reportedly the inside scoop from flight attendants, who have helped protect the public and themselves from serious health hazards in the past. Their union helped end smoking on domestic flights in 1989.
Although, the write-up is oversensationalized, it does make a few valid points.
1. On board, avoid drinking any liquid that doesn't come from a bottle or a can, or bring your own water, coffee or tea. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency sampled the water supply in 327 airplanes; E. coli was found in about 10 percent of them. As a result the EPA now requires airlines to test for coliform and E. coli bacteria at least once a year. (Is that enough?)
Unfortunately, the Administrative Orders on Consent, which lays out more-thorough sanitation standards and disinfection protocols, is toothless. Many, but surprisingly not all, major airlines have agreed to them.
2. Super-flush toilets can spew germs and in-flight usage can create unsanitary conditions, even if the bathrooms started out clean. Best advice: Avoid WC surfaces, and don't wash your hands in the water; use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
3. Blankets and pillows come in plastic wraps and give the impression they're newly dry-cleaned. Not necessarily. It's smarter to bring your own jacket or blanket for warmth, and travel pillows fit easily in carry-ons.
4. Keep food off tray-table surfaces; they're rarely sanitized and serve as everything from baby-changing stations to, well, you get the idea. Clean with alcohol wipes.
5. Don't reach inside seat pockets where bacteria and viruses are feasting on last week's leftovers. If you do reach in to read the safety card or retrieve a magazine, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer afterward.
But don't be overly worried: Really, the main thing you have to fear is fare itself (and even more consolidation of airlines and more limited flights).
Q: I've heard that scientists are making replacement body parts in the lab from your own cells, including nostrils and parts of the female anatomy. Does this really work? — Susan J., Falls Church, Virginia
A: The science of creating living tissue in a lab that can then be successfully implanted in a person's body is moving from science fiction to science fact. Recently, scientists reported successful human use of laboratory-grown nostril replacements. Researchers took cartilage cells from the nasal septum and stimulated the cells so they grew into a piece of cartilage 40 times their original size. Surgeons then shaped that cartilage to fill in the missing part on a patient's nose and covered it with skin. After 12 months, all five patients who received the transplants liked the appearance and had no trouble breathing through their nostril.
Recent reports about vaginal replacements got a lot more press because they're so sensational. But the process is much the same, and it's a tremendous help for women who are born with an underdeveloped or missing vagina. Tissue from the vulva of four such women was used to grow both smooth muscle cells and vaginal epithelial cells on biodegradable scaffolding shaped like a vagina; in a week the organs were formed and then implanted. But the real news is that the transplants on four women, then ages 13-18, were done eight years ago. Today all the women are sexually active and report normal vaginal sensations, lubrication and function.
Despite these major breakthroughs, the everyday growth of replacement parts is still years away. But the promise is real and could mean the elimination of transplant waiting lists.