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PLoS One. 2011 Jan 17;6(1):e14520. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014520.

An analysis on the detection of biological contaminants aboard aircraft.

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  • 1Department of the Office of Chief Engineer, The MITRE Corporation, McLean, Virginia, United States of America.


The spread of infectious disease via commercial airliner travel is a significant and realistic threat. To shed some light on the feasibility of detecting airborne pathogens, a sensor integration study has been conducted and computational investigations of contaminant transport in an aircraft cabin have been performed. Our study took into consideration sensor sensitivity as well as the time-to-answer, size, weight and the power of best available commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) devices. We conducted computational fluid dynamics simulations to investigate three types of scenarios: (1) nominal breathing (up to 20 breaths per minute) and coughing (20 times per hour); (2) nominal breathing and sneezing (4 times per hour); and (3) nominal breathing only. Each scenario was implemented with one or seven infectious passengers expelling air and sneezes or coughs at the stated frequencies. Scenario 2 was implemented with two additional cases in which one infectious passenger expelled 20 and 50 sneezes per hour, respectively. All computations were based on 90 minutes of sampling using specifications from a COTS aerosol collector and biosensor. Only biosensors that could provide an answer in under 20 minutes without any manual preparation steps were included. The principal finding was that the steady-state bacteria concentrations in aircraft would be high enough to be detected in the case where seven infectious passengers are exhaling under scenarios 1 and 2 and where one infectious passenger is actively exhaling in scenario 2. Breathing alone failed to generate sufficient bacterial particles for detection, and none of the scenarios generated sufficient viral particles for detection to be feasible. These results suggest that more sensitive sensors than the COTS devices currently available and/or sampling of individual passengers would be needed for the detection of bacteria and viruses in aircraft.

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