Airplane compartments: Dangerously dirty?

A discarded syringe pokes a 6-year-old boy, and his parents wonder how medical waste could be left on an airplane.

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Airplanes: Dirtier than you think?

Colleen and Jack Linehan were settled in their seats on a Delta flight from Michigan to Minnesota when their 6-year-old son dropped a toy. As the boy reached down the edge of his seat to retrieve it, something poked his finger. He pulled it out and showed the pointy thing to his father.

It was a used syringe. Soon a blob of blood oozed from his finger.

The Linehans fear that the accidental poke on Oct. 7 might have exposed their child to a serious disease, and their worries have been compounded by the airlines' uneven response. The incident also exposed a reality of modern air travel -- with planes deep-cleaned every few weeks or months, nasty surprises can lurk under cushions and between seats.

"It's one thing to have ketchup packets and food," said Colleen Linehan, an orthopedic surgeon who trained at the University of Minnesota and lives in Saginaw, Mich. "It's another thing to have drugs and needles around."

Delta Airlines referred questions to the regional carrier operating the flight, Pinnacle Airlines of Memphis, Tenn.

Pinnacle spokesman Joe Williams described what happened as an "extremely rare incident." Under pressure from the family, the airline is reviewing passenger lists to figure out who might have left the syringe behind.

"We are doing everything we can to address the customer's concerns," Williams said.

Accidental needlesticks have long been recognized as a health menace for medical professionals, because of the danger of transmitting diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

The threat to airline passengers is less clear. In 1998, a New Jersey man sued a Mexican airline after he got poked by a needle that had been left on a seat cushion. As a result, he said he and his wife had to put off their plans to start a family for six months. He also got vaccinated for hepatitis. A judge ruled the most he could get in the case was $75,000 under a treaty governing the rights of airline passengers.

A recent study published in a medical journal described 14 needlestick injuries of workers at Chicago O'Hare International Airport from 2003 to 2008. Most were workers who came across the syringes while cleaning restrooms; two were on airplanes.

The increasingly dirty state of aircraft cabins came to national attention in 2006, when the New York Times picked up on a J.D. Power and Associates passenger survey that flunked every airline on hygiene. The experts blamed widespread work layoffs, shorter gate stays and more passengers toting their own food on board.

"Since 2006, things haven't gotten much better," said Matt Holland, a manager at J.D. Power and Associates. Holland said customer satisfaction ratings for Delta, which includes Pinnacle-operated flights, are below average.

Every night, the cabins of Pinnacle aircraft are vacuumed. Windows, seat-back trays, lavatories and galleys are washed and seat back pockets are cleaned, Williams said. Every 60 to 90 days the planes get a "maintenance heavy cleaning," in which "the entire cabin is scrubbed, and anything that is worn is replaced, such as seat cushions and carpet," he said.

The Linehans' airplane was intensively cleaned on Sept. 23.

"We have reviewed our procedures, which are developed by experienced airline veterans in accordance with FAA and DOT guidelines," Williams said. "We are diligent about following those procedures, but this incident was caused by someone who carelessly dropped a syringe."

The flight was the family's first leg of a trip to Seattle for a short vacation. After their son's finger was pricked, his parents looked at the syringe, which appeared to be an insulin needle, and gave it to a flight attendant. The plane hadn't taken off yet, so the flight attendant gave the needle to the pilot. He tossed it in the regular trash, the Linehans said.

Though she used an antiseptic wipe on her son's finger, Colleen Linehan was becoming increasingly stressed.

"I was keeping calm for my family's sake, for the airline's and passengers' sake," she said.

After Linehan kept talking with the flight attendant, the crew realized the gravity of the situation. Paramedics were waiting at the gate when the aircraft arrived. They offered to take the boy to the hospital for a blood test, but the family declined. Linehan said she wanted the airlines to focus on tracing the passenger who left the needle behind.

The family boarded a flight to Seattle, but Linehan said worries about her son and frustration with the airlines' response pretty much wrecked the vacation. They flew home Tuesday and took their boy immediately to the hospital for a blood draw. The likelihood of infection is low, but doctors said they would need to continue testing for a year.

An e-mail from Williams to Whistleblower was the first indication the family had that their request for tracking the needle prompted action. Williams said the move was an "accommodation" to the family.

"Tracing passengers raises a number of issues, such as passengers not sitting in their assigned seat, whether they can be located and contacted at all, and whether they are willing to share information," Williams said.

As of late last week, the family still hadn't heard whether the mystery passenger had been located, Jack Linehan said.

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