What is the dirtiest place at the airport? Hint: Not the washroom

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Next time you go through airport security, it might be worth washing your hands afterward.

The highest levels of respiratory viruses at airports are on the plastic trays used at security checkpoints, a new study finds.

Frequent cleaning, they pointed out, is exactly why an unlikely surface topped the list of the most virus-free spots in the airport: the toilet.

Tests on plastic luggage trays at airport security found that half were harbouring at least one respiratory disease such as the common cold or influenza.

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Four of the eight samples contained the rhinovirus or adenovirus - which cause cold-like symptoms.

Areas of the Helsinki-Vantaa airport - which saw nearly 19 million passengers in 2017 - were tested for viral contamination, with 90 surface samples and four air samples collected over a three-week period in 2016.

A 2015 study from Travelmath reported that the tray table was the number one offender, with the drinking fountain buttons and overhead air vents the most germ-filled surfaces.

It concluded: "Security check trays appear to pose the highest potential risk and are used by virtually all embarking passengers".

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In the study, some of the other surfaces that tested positive for such sickness- inducing germs include handrails of stairs, the desk and glass dividers at the passport control point, and a plastic toy in the children's play area.

The study's researchers hope that the findings "improve public awareness of how viral infections spread".

Virology expert Niina Ikonen from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare said: "The presence of microbes in the environment of an airport has not been investigated previously. People can help to minimise contagion by hygienic hand washing and coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or sleeve at all times but especially in public places", said study co-author Jonathan Van Tamion in a statement.

The results, they said, demonstrated that airports can serve as a potential risk-zone for an "emerging pandemic threat" - a prospect that has already become a major concern in the aftermath of the 2002 SARS outbreak, and the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

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Your best bet? Wash your hands as much as possible and keep the trusty hand sanitizer on standby.