The Next Frontier in Public Health Might Be Airplane Bathrooms

No, really.

overhead shot of an Airplane bathroom
Data from these might keep you healthier on land.
Joko/Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Among the things most people who don’t work in public health have learned during the last few years is this: wastewater can provide valuable data on diseases making their way through a given population. Before 2020, you might have thought that sewage was, well, garbage. Turns out it’s a very useful method of understanding the risks facing populations all over the world.

Most wastewater studies have focused on wastewater in a given region — somewhere like a city’s sewage systems. But there are other systems that serve a similar purpose but spend plenty of time high off the ground. All of which begs the potentially gross but scientifically relevant question: is it time to start monitoring the sewage gathered from airplane bathrooms?

That’s one of the main arguments made in a new article by Betsy Ladyzhets at The Atlantic. It notes that the CDC is currently exploring working with a division of biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks on, as Ladyzhets describes it, “screening airplane wastewater for COVID-19 at airports around the country.” Conversation on the proposed program was kickstarted by the end of China’s “Zero COVID” policy and concerns over new variants.

It doesn’t sound like this program would involve monitoring all flights across the country. Instead, the focus would be on longer international flights which would likely have, er, more waste on board to evaluate. If such a program could lead to public health actions against a new variant, it’s not hard to see the importance of it — even if the process of testing airplane bathroom waste doesn’t bring the sunniest of images to mind.

Win the Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix Experience

Want the F1 experience of a lifetime? Here’s your chance to win tickets to see Turn 18 Grandstand, one of Ultimate Formula 1® Miami Grand Prix’s most premier grandstands!