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3News Investigates: "Filthy flying" at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport enhanced by rarely-cleaned TSA checkpoint bins

Tests find E. coli present at Hopkins' TSA checkpoint; safer alternatives not being pursued

CLEVELAND — TSA workers rarely disinfect the bins passengers use while passing through airport security checkpoints, potentially leaving a path of bacteria and E. coli to grow unabated, a 3News Investigation has learned.

Government officials say they’re aware of past findings of bacteria on the bins, while at the same time ignoring potential solutions or requiring disinfecting after each use.

At Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport, 3News Investigates retained the services of a private lab to test for levels of bacteria at the TSA checkpoint.

Five of six bins tests showed E. coli present.

A study in Finland found wide-spread bacteria evidence, prompting calls for change.

“Of the surfaces tested, plastic security screening trays appeared to pose the highest potential risk, and handling these is almost inevitable for all embarking passengers,” the study’s authors concluded.

A year later, antimicrobial bins were tested at airports in Los Angeles and Minnesota.

TSA, however, said there are no plans to replace the current supply.

Spokeswoman Jessica Mayle said TSA “buys and supplies its own bins. And we don’t have any operations in Cleveland to routinely test for the level of bacteria in bins.”

TSA is responsible for cleaning the bins. Hopkins maintenance staff are only responsible for public areas, such as concourses and lobbies.

In a statement to 3News Investigates, Mayle added:

 “TSA frontline employees conduct routine cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces, bins, and security screening equipment at TSA security checkpoints each shift using a hospital-grade disinfectant. Sometimes, in times of high passenger volume, bins are cleaned more frequently. Employees are encouraged to wash their hands after cleaning and after removing their gloves.

“Most importantly, travelers are encouraged to follow CDC guidelines and wash their hands before and after completing the security screening process.”

Several current and former TSA workers from various cities, however, confirmed to 3News Investigates that the bins are rarely cleaned.

Passengers at Hopkins expressed dismay when shown the results of the testing conducted by 3News Investigates.

“I’m honestly shocked,” one traveler said.

E. coli, which derives from human feces, can cause a variety of ailments, from diarrhea all the way up to more serious health conditions like meningitis.

Cleveland Clinic Dr. Baruch Fertel, who specializes in emergency medicine, said E. coli can be avoided.

“It really is a marker, of poor hygiene,” he said. “Someone who is immune suppressed or somebody who is extreme of age, super young, super old, they can get severe dehydration.”

“It should be a warning, if we see that, to tell people ‘you probably should be washing your hands with soap and water’.”

You can watch part 1 of our "Filthy Flying" investigation below:

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