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The One Thing You’ve Probably Forgotten to Disinfect While Traveling

By Chris Schalkx

Mar 25, 2020

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If you've traveled recently, you'll want to give your passport an extra good cleaning.

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If you've traveled recently, you'll want to give your passport an extra good cleaning.

Viruses—and not just the coronavirus—can survive longer on nonporous, water-resistant surfaces like plastic passport covers. Here’s how to clean your passport without damaging it.

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There’s air travel before COVID-19, and there’s now, this strange time of health declaration forms, temperature checks, and stuffing 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer in your carry-on. If you must travel right now, flying is no longer a matter of mindlessly chucking some clothes, wallet, and passport in a bag and jumping in a taxi to the airport (which has been my go-to strategy thus far). It now takes a little more preparation, both physically and mentally.

While Thailand, where I live, is now discouraging air travel to contain the coronavirus outbreak, I was still on the move earlier this month, when a quick weekend jaunt (my last one for a while) from Bangkok to Phuket saw me pass through two different airports four times in the span of 48 hours. Before I left home, I dutifully followed advice on how to fly safely during this pandemic and made a mental checklist of precautions to take. While I didn’t pull a full-on Naomi, I did pack a spray bottle with alcohol-based disinfectant to clean armrests and tray tables, an N95-mask to wear in the crowded airport terminal (nothing new here, due to Bangkok’s horrible air pollution, a mask has been part of my standard outfit since January), and took a rinse-and-repeat approach to washing my hands whenever possible.  

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I also developed an eagle-eyed awareness about everything me and my belongings came in contact with. I even went as far as disinfecting my suitcase handle after the taxi driver kindly handed it to me. However, I noticed that one travel essential collected far more fingerprints than anything else: my passport.

At the check-in booth, upon entering the terminal, during luggage screening, and before boarding, my passport went through at least four sets of ungloved hands (and since this was a domestic flight, I didn’t even have to pass through immigration). While there were some bottles of hand sanitizer in sight, it would’ve been unrealistic to expect staff to thoroughly clean their hands every time they touched a passport. How many had they touched before handling mine? Ten? Fifty? Three hundred? As my mind began to spin about the amount of germs those bare fingers potentially pressed onto my travel document, I generously spritzed it with alcohol, just to be on the safe side, and much to the amusement of my fellow travelers.

Turns out, I get to have the metaphorical last laugh. A recently published report by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) revealed that the COVID-19 virus could still be detected on plastic surfaces (such as passport covers) up to three days after the initial contamination. While it should be noted that the experiments were conducted in a tightly controlled lab environment and mileage may vary in real-life situations, it does reveal that there’s a real risk for a passport to become a germ-spreading vehicle.

To make sure I wasn’t overreacting, I asked some experts for their take on the matter.

“There’s no reason to believe that passports are different from any other surface, and they could potentially—with emphasis on ‘potentially'—be a source of any microorganisms that can be spread by cross-contamination,” said Donald Schaffner, professor at Rutgers University with an expertise in microbial risk assessment and handwashing. “If it makes you feel more secure, clean it. I travel a lot and I have never disinfected my passport. It’s an open question about whether I would do so given that we now live in the time of COVID-19.”

Erin Sorrell, Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University adds: “In general, viruses—and not just the coronavirus—can survive longer on nonporous, water-resistant surfaces like plastic and steel. Many passport covers are made from plastic and those surfaces should be cleaned regularly. Using a disinfectant wipe that is over 60 percent alcohol is a good method.”

Schaffner warns to make sure not to damage the passport when cleaning it: “I once pulled a sticker off my passport cover, which led to a misunderstanding with the airport security. When cleaning your passport, be careful not to smudge or damage any airport security stickers you still need.”

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A passport cover (or a passport cover-cover to be more precise) could be a solution. Not only does it protect the passport’s plastic surface from unwanted germs, but it’s also less risky to clean. A damaged passport cover could be replaced, while a damaged passport could lead to a whole lot of trouble. Given the many options available, I asked for Sorell’s advice.

“Materials like leather and fabric are porous, so can be less of an ideal surface for the virus to survive for extended periods of time,” Sorrell explained. “So one of those leather or fabric cases would be better, but all passport covers should be cleaned.”

[Editor's note: Cuyana, a San Francisco-based, women-owned company, makes quality leather passport cases in nearly a dozen different colors for under $100.]

As a frequent traveler, the coronavirus has turned me into a mild germaphobe, constantly scanning my surroundings for possible sources of contamination. And while washing my passport cover only adds a tiny bit of protection from a possible infection (frequent handwashing is much more important, Schaffner and Sorell both conclude), it does give me a much-needed peace of mind and a sense of control in this coronavirus-crazy time. And after travelers around the world are ready to pack their bags again, you’ll likely still see me scrubbing my passport clean (you may snicker, but I don’t care!)—because you never know what illness-causing germs may be lurking on its surface. 

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