8/28/12 - air, airborne, and airplanes

In today's excerpt - the power of myths and the success of a prophylactic called Airborne:

"There is a widespread assumption that traveling on planes can be dangerous because of the recirculated air and the fre­quency of sick passengers on board. Most people think that air on planes is largely recirculated, enabling germs to flow around the cabin and infect multiple people. People generally have a notion that when they travel by plane they run a higher risk of catching a cold than in other contexts (working in public buildings, traveling by train, etc.). Victoria Knight-McDowell (a schoolteacher) and her husband, Rider McDowell (a writer), developed a prophylactic (something you take to avoid catching something else) dietary supplement called Airborne.

"Airborne's initial packaging and marketing focused on the assumed risk of getting sick while flying. By 2008 this product was generating over $300 million in sales and could be found in travelers' pockets across the United States (including my academic colleagues and even members of my family). The product label implies that taking it regularly can boost one's immune system and thus prevent or cure colds (however, it never states that it actually does so). The ingredients include vitamin C, which has been shown to have limited success at reducing the length of a cold (largely by reducing the symptoms), and many people in our society think that taking a lot of vitamin C can help rid them of a cold. None of the other ingredients have been demonstrated to be effective against colds or specifically beneficial for the immune system (nor has Airborne itself, which is not regulated by the FDA).

"How is this anecdote relevant to our myths about human nature? It reflects a broader myth about biology and technology that influences behavior. Even a small myth, when popular, can affect the way a society thinks, acts, and spends money. How is it a myth? Well, for one, it is simply not true that air on planes is predominantly recirculated or germ-laden. Modern airplanes mix some compressed air with air drawn in from outside and the mix is about 50 percent at any given time. The air is refreshed throughout the flight with very effective filters and there is a total changeover in cabin air (that is total cabin air moving through the filters) every three minutes or so. So the danger from planes and disease (unless one is seated directly next to someone who is highly contagious) is pretty minimal relative to what one risks in most large office buildings. Also, what we call the common cold comes from viruses (mostly a group of rhinoviruses and corona viruses), meaning that one would need an antiviral drug or compound to prevent them. We do not currently have one. There is no vaccine for these viruses and the only demonstrated method of avoiding a cold is to ensure the viruses do not get into your upper respiratory tract (washing hands regularly and not touching your mouth and nose is probably your best bet).

"What we actually know about technology shows us that planes are not particularly dangerous places to catch a cold, and biological and medical research shows us that there is nothing (currently) that we could consume that would help us avoid or prevent catching a cold. Yet, tens of thousands of people have purchased Airborne prior to flying in the expectation that they are about to undertake a disease risk (the plane journey) and that these dietary supplements (Airborne) will protect them from the disease (a cold). Despite easily available information busting the myths of plane travel and the effectiveness of Airborne, and what we actually know about cold viruses and catching colds, this myth set remains present and powerful."


Agustin Fuentes


Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You


University of California Press


Copyright 2012 by the Regents of the University of California


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