Study Seeks Way to Remove Poisons from Airplanes

While the airplane research covers accidental contamination and the natural spread of viruses such as flu or chickenpox, the deliberate spread of toxins is a key concern.


The scene looks like something out of "The Twilight Zone" - 80 inflated mannequins eerily seated in the dim cabin of a 767 jetliner that has no destination.

In reality, the jet cabin is a laboratory at Kansas State University, but the experiment is about something quite scary:

What if a terrorist released an invisible poison or disease-causing agent such as anthrax inside a commercial airliner?

Researchers at the university are under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration to study how to detect, contain and remove contaminants on planes.

KSU long has been a center for study of air quality and adapting to adverse conditions, such as how soldiers can cope with heat in Iraq by wearing cold-water vests.

While the airplane research covers accidental contamination and the natural spread of viruses such as flu or chickenpox, the deliberate spread of toxins is a key concern, said project supervisors.

"If we had been doing this research 10 years ago, we probably wouldn't be looking at intentional contamination of the cabin," said Byron Jones, project director and a professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering. "We'd be looking at normal, everyday contaminants."

While someone could release toxins in other crowded environments - such as theaters, stadiums or buses - airplanes are historically terrorist targets and have especially captive occupants. Such an incident would have a "huge negative impact" on the airline industry, Jones said.

Early indications are that contaminants travel farther inside an airplane than previously thought, he said.

Some test results likely will be reported to the FAA next year, Jones said. Seven universities, sharing a $10 million FAA grant, are taking part in the study, but only KSU has re-created a portion of a plane for experiments.

"It's very important for national security," said M.H. Hosni, co-director of the project and head of KSU's Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Enparticulate matter might land. They want to know if sensors can be created to detect contaminants, what can be done on board if something is detected and how to clean it up, Jones said.

The study also is intended to explain how illnesses may spread on planes. There has been recent concern about severe acute respiratory syndrome, a disease that sometimes follows extended travel but is not necessarily due to airplane environments.

Jones said some people are convinced that air on planes makes them ill.

While close contact with others can spread disease, air on planes is replaced with fresh air more than in most settings, he said. Stress, fatigue and time changes that go with air travel may affect health, Jones said.

"Quite often, people will blame the air, and it will be something else," he said.

Nonetheless, the study will help determine how to improve and protect air on planes. Jones said it will be years before any changes are implemented, because of regulatory issues and the relatively infrequent construction of new planes.

"It's a long process between the time you learn something here and when it gets on the actual aircraft," Jones said.

While the research project is serious, Jones couldn't help but see some humor in having to round up plastic stand-ins for humans in the replicated 767 jet cabin. Jones said they came from a novelty supplier.

"They were kind of surprised when we ordered 80 mannequins," he said. "People usually order two or three."

Once delivered, the first task was to get them to stay in their airplane seats. Since they are inflated, they had to be buckled in or they would drift away.

The mannequins occupy 11 rows in a section of the wide-body 767 cabin, which was built by university students and finished in July.

The plane section has an aluminum exterior and is encased in a square plywood building inside a former Manhattan warehouse.

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