Plane cabins are havens for germs. Here’s how they can clean up their act


Ipek Kurtböke, University of the Sunshine Coast

Qantas has unveiled a range of precautions to guard passengers against COVID-19. The safety measures expected to be rolled out on June 12 include contactless check-in, hand sanitiser at departure gates, and optional masks and sanitising wipes on board.

Controversially, however, there will be no physical distancing on board, because Qantas claims it is too expensive to run half-empty flights.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing airlines to look closely at their hygiene practices. But aircraft cabins were havens for germs long before the coronavirus came along. The good news is there are some simple ways on-board hygiene can be improved.




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Common sense precautions

As an environmental microbiologist I have observed, in general, a gradual loss of quality in hygiene globally.

Airports and aircrafts have crammed ever larger numbers of passengers into ever smaller economy-class seats.

Although social distancing can’t do much in a confined cabin space – as the virus is reported to be able to travel eight meters — wearing face masks (viral ones in particular) and practising hand hygiene remain crucial.

Since microorganisms are invisible, it is hard to combat such a powerful enemy. During flights, I have observed a vast array of unwitting mistakes made by flight crew and passengers.

Some crew staff would go to the bathroom to push overflowing paper towels down into the bins, exit without washing their hands and continue to serve food and drinks.

We have the technology for manufacturers to install waste bins where paper towels can be shredded, disinfected and disposed of via suction, as is used in the toilets. Moreover, all aircraft waste bins should operate with pedals to prevent hand contamination.

Also, pilots should not share bathrooms with passengers, as is often the case. Imagine the consequences if pilots became infected and severely ill during a long flight, to the point of not being able to fly. Who would land the plane?

For instance, the highly transmissible norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, can manifest within 12 hours of exposure. So for everyone’s safety, pilots should have their own bathroom.

Food and the kitchen

Aircraft kitchen areas should be as far as possible from toilets.

Male and female toilets should be separated because, due to the way men and women use the bathroom, male bathrooms are more likely to have droplets of urine splash outside the toilet bowl. Child toilets and change rooms should be separate as well.

Food trolleys should be covered with a sterile plastic sheet during service as they come close to seated passengers who could be infected.

And to allow traffic flow in the corridor, trolleys should not be placed near toilets. At times I have seen bread rolls in a basket with a nice white napkin, with the napkin touching the toilet door.

Also, blankets should not be used if the bags have been opened, and pillows should have their own sterile bags.

Mind your luggage

In March, luggage handlers were infected with COVID-19 at Adelaide Airport.

As a passenger, you should avoid placing your hand luggage on the seats while reaching into overhead lockers. There’s a chance your luggage was placed on a contaminated surface before you entered the plane, such as on a public bathroom floor.

Be wary of using the seat pocket in front of you. Previous passengers may have placed dirty (or infected) tissues there. So keep this in mind when using one to hold items such as your passport, or glasses, which come close to your eyes (through which SARS-CoV-2 can enter the body).

Also, safety cards in seat pockets should be disposable and should be replaced after each flight.




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In facing the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important to remember that unless an antiviral drug or a vaccine is found, this virus could come back every year.

On many occasions, microbiologists have warned of the need for more microbiology literacy among the public. Yet, too often their calls are dismissed as paranoia, or being overly cautious.

But now’s the time to listen, and to start taking precaution. For all we know, there may be even more dangerous superbugs breeding around us – ones we’ve simply yet to encounter.The Conversation

Ipek Kurtböke, Senior Lecturer, Environmental Microbiology, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What ‘sniffer’ planes can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear tests



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Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix “sniffer plane” used to monitor radioactive emissions from nuclear bomb tests.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Kaitlin Cook, Australian National University

On Sunday, North Korea claimed it had completed its sixth nuclear test – a hydrogen bomb.

This test was performed underground by the notoriously secretive regime. So, how can the international community know the state news agency was telling the truth?

The 6.3 magnitude tremor tells us there was an explosion Sunday. But to know this was a nuclear test, we have to detect the signature of a nuclear explosion.


Read More: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


Nuclear weapons either produce energy through nuclear fission (fission bombs) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs). In both cases, nuclear reactions with neutrons cause the uranium or plutonium fuel to fission into two smaller nuclei, called fission fragments. These fragments are radioactive, and can be detected by their characteristic decay radiation.

If we detect these fission fragments, we know that a nuclear explosion occurred. And that’s where “sniffer” planes come in.

Nuclear fission and fusion.

Enter ‘sniffer’ planes

Since 1947, the United States Air Force has operated a nuclear explosions detection unit.

The current fleet uses the WC-135 Constant Phoenix. The aircraft fly through clouds of radioactive debris to collect air samples and catch dust. By measuring their decay, fission fragments can be detected in minute quantities.

The crew are kept safe using filters to scrub cabin air. Radiation levels are monitored using personal measuring devices for each crew member.

A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron taxis in on the flightline.
US Airforce/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Sniffer planes like Constant Phoenix can be rapidly deployed soon after a reported nuclear test and have been used to verify nuclear tests in North Korea in the past.

This year, Constant Phoenix has reportedly been deployed in Okinawa, Japan and has had encounters with Chinese jets.

On the ground, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) operates 80 ground-based monitoring stations across the globe that constantly monitor the air for fission products that have dispersed through the atmosphere.

Japan and South Korea operate their own radiation monitoring networks. These networks will also presumably be looking for signatures of the latest North Korean test.

CTBTO radiation monitoring system.

What can fission fragments tell us?

When a nuclear test occurs underground, the fission fragments are trapped except for noble gasses.

Because noble gasses don’t react chemically (except in extreme cases), they diffuse through the rock and eventually escape, ready to be detected.

In particular, some radioactive isotopes of the chemical element xenon are useful due to the fact these isotopes of xenon don’t appear in the atmosphere naturally, have decay times that are neither too long nor too short, and are produced in large quantities in a nuclear explosion. If you see these isotopes, you know a nuclear test occurred.

Something happened during this test that has people excited — there was an additional magnitude 4.1 tremor around eight minutes after the initial tremor, according to the United States Geological Survey. Among other things, this may indicate that the tunnel containing the bomb collapsed. If this happened, then other fission products and other radioactive isotopes could escape as dust particles.

This might have been accidental or deliberate (to provide proof to international viewers), but in either case, we may learn a lot, depending on how fast the sniffer planes arrived and how much dust was released.

For example, by looking at the probability of seeing fission fragments with different masses, the composition of the fission fuel could be determined. We could also learn about the composition of the rest of the bomb. These facts are things that nuclear states keep very secret.

Crucially, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, we could suggest whether or not the bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

What can’t they tell us?

The amount of information a sniffer plane can determine depends on how much material was released from the test site, how quickly it was released (due to nuclear decay) and how rapidly the sniffer plane got into place.

But fission fragment measurements probably can’t tell us whether the bomb tested was small enough to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). After all, it’s easy enough for North Korea to show a casing in a staged photograph and blow up something else.


Read More: North Korea panics the world, but ‘H-bomb’ test changes little


Whether or not North Korea has a thermonuclear device that is capable of being mounted to an ICBM is a question weighing heavily on the minds of the international community.

The ConversationSniffer planes and the CTBTO network will be wringing all of the data they can out of the debris in the atmosphere to help the world understand the nuclear threat from North Korea.

Kaitlin Cook, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Nuclear Physics, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

MEDICAL SYSTEM IN GAZA STRIP NEARING ITS COLLAPSE


The latest reports coming out of the Gaza Strip indicate that medical personnel are having difficulty reaching the wounded and that the collapse of the medical system is imminent. Church officials are calling for a cease fire to treat the wounded, reports Catholic News Agency.

According to Caritas Internationalis, a network of 162 aid agencies which helps provide primary medical services in Gaza, its efforts to help the wounded are being severely hampered by the war.

Caritas’ president, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, has issued a call for an immediate cease fire, saying, “Caritas and our Catholic Church partners in the Holy Land call for an immediate ceasefire to enable the sick and wounded to be treated. Innocent people are suffering because aid agencies cannot reach them due to the Israeli military action.

“Caritas calls for action from the USA, the EU, and the international community on pressing for an immediate ceasefire to create the necessary environment in Gaza for aid agencies to be able to care for the wounded. War cannot be justified by either Israel or Hamas. Arguments over proportionality are morally repugnant when we are talking about the lives of innocent children.”

The latest figures show 87 Palestinian children have been killed in the Israeli attacks.

Caritas’ Jerusalem Secretary-General Claudette Habesch offered more details about developments on the ground. “Our staff in Gaza are witnessing a collapse of medical services. People are dying in their homes because they can’t get treatment. There are 2,053 hospitals bed sin Gaza and 2,500 people wounded by the Israeli bombardment. Doctors say they lack bandages and antiseptic.”

The Israeli offensive against Gaza began after the Palestinian region’s ruling Hamas party made continuous rocket attacks on southern Israel, citing Israeli raids and blockades.

Israeli tanks, planes, and ground forces continued their attacks Sunday night. According to Reuters, at least 541 people have died in the 10-day offensive.

Israel had occupied the Palestinian enclave in Gaza from 1967 to 2005.

Report from the Christian Telegraph