4 Tips for Healthier Flying

Expert advice from a flight attendant union

Headed to some white sand beaches, or snow-capped mountains sometime soon? Maybe it's just a quick business trip. No matter what, flying is almost inevitable these days. While air travel in general has been proven to be pretty safe, we have a few tips to make jetting off for that weekend vacay a little healthier. And nope, it's not about staying hydrated (okay, one of them is) or putting on a face mask, although both of those might make you feel better when you arrive, too.

Our tips are more about reducing your contact with the chemicals that are unavoidable on airplanes. These unavoidable chemicals are different kinds of flame retardants that are added to meet FAA performance and safety regulations. While other everyday items, like couches and electronics, have to meet regulations related to not catching on fire, airplanes are a little different.

"The aircraft cabin is very heavily treated by regulation. Pretty much anything on an aircraft has to pass one of a series of flame tests, where the item is exposed to a certain type of flame for a certain number of minutes or seconds, and it has to self-extinguish within a certain number of seconds. It is possible for at least some of these regulations to be met without flame retardants, but the flame retardants option is the easiest and the cheapest, so according to the FAA, that is how most manufacturers comply with these rules," says Judith Anderson from the Association of Flight Attendants.

Because of these stronger regulations, and the fact that adding flame retardant chemicals is cheaper, easier, and may weigh less than untreated but suitably fire-retardant materials, there are a variety of these chemicals in almost every inch of an airplane.

So, with that in mind, there are some easy ways to prep for a trip that can reduce your exposure to these chemicals. Most of them are from Ms. Anderson, but, while we had your attention, we threw in one or two of our own for good measure.

1) Dress for success

Generally speaking for airplanes this means wear long sleeves, long pants, and sensible shoes - You can take that to mean leggings and sweatshirts for the win! By wearing long pants and long sleeves, "You have reduced contact with the flame retardant treated surfaces, and long pants and sleeves with sensible type shoes, not flip flops or heels for example, are going to serve you better if you actually do have to evacuate the cabin in the case of emergency," says Ms. Anderson. Airplanes are often cold anyway, so throwing in some long sleeves, even if you're headed to a warm destination, isn't the worst idea.

2) Wash up

Basically, because almost everything in the plane is covered in these flame retardant chemicals, make sure to wash your hands before you eat anything and when you get off the plane. "A study published in 2014 by a researcher at Harvard found that after one single cross country flight that there was measurable flame retardants from the aircraft cabin on the surfaces of the hands of the flight attendants that participated in that research study. So, an obvious recommendation is to wash your hands before you eat, and to wash your hands after a flight, in order to minimize how much gets absorbed," says Ms. Anderson. While you're at it, it's probably a good idea to throw those long pants and sleeves that you wore in the wash, too. You don't want to accidentally drop a snack on your sweatshirt a few days later and pick up flame retardants that have just been chillin' on your cozy sweats.

3) Use your nose

This one sounds a little more out there, but it's important. Besides the potential for contact with pesticides, germs, and ozone gas in the cabin, there is the potential to breathe toxic engine oil fumes onboard.There are documented cases (about 5 a day on the US fleet) where engine oil fumes contaminate the ventilation air supplied to the cabin. The oils contain some nasty chemical additives that can cause neurological and breathing problems for passengers and flight crew. "It is important to be aware of the possibility for oils to contaminate the air supply system, and it is important to know that the fumes are most often described as smelling like dirty socks or like a gym locker, kind of a musty, moldy, foul kind of smell. If you smell dirty socks on a plane, the first thought that most people have is that somebody has taken their shoes off, but oil fumes is another explanation. It happens most commonly during engine start, take off, or what is called top of descent, at the end of cruising portion of the flight, when the aircraft starts to descend. All of those phases of flight are associated with engine power setting changes, and when the engine power setting changes, the mechanical changes increase the risk of oil getting into the air supply system. So [if you notice that distinctive smell] coming from the vents, report it promptly to the crew and report it to the airline and the FAA safety hotline after the flight," says Ms. Anderson.

4) Drink up

We're throwing this one in for good measure. Pack a reusable water bottle with you. Be sure it's empty when you go through security, then you can fill it up at any of the fountains or water bottle filling stations that are now super common in airports near the gates. This helps make sure you don't have to buy bottled water at the airport or while you are traveling, and it's good to stay hydrated while you fly anyway. Check out our roundup of some of our favorite water bottles if you don't have one you love yet.

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