Bacteria: Chapter III - BACTERIA IN THE AIRby@sirgeorgenewman
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Bacteria: Chapter III - BACTERIA IN THE AIR

by Sir George NewmanSeptember 9th, 2022
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The basis of the usual methods in practice is to pass air over or through some nutrient medium. By this means the contained organisms are waylaid, and finding themselves under favourable conditions of pabulum, temperature, and moisture, commence active growth, and thus reveal themselves in characteristic colonies.

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Bacteria, by George Newman is part of the HackerNoon Books series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here . Chapter III: BACTERIA IN THE AIR


Methods of examining air for bacteria

The basis of the usual methods in practice is to pass air over or through some nutrient medium. By this means the contained organisms are waylaid, and finding themselves under favourable conditions of pabulum, temperature, and moisture, commence active growth, and thus reveal themselves in characteristic colonies.

These are examined, as directed on page 43, by the microscope and sub-culture. Quantitative estimation is not generally made, as a fixed standard is even less a possibility than in milk and soil. Returns of the number of bacteria in the sample taken may be made for the sake of information, but little or no conclusion of value can be drawn from such data. The standard recognised in Europe is the cubic metre, and one may speak, for example, of the air of a room containing 500, 1000, or 3000 germs per cubic metre.

The following are the chief methods:

1. Pouchet's Aëroscope. This apparatus was in use some time ago in France, and by its means all the solid matter of a given quantity of air was drawn through an air-tight glass tube by aspiration and made to impinge upon a small plate of glycerine. The air escaped to the aspirator at the sides, leaving upon the glycerine plate only its particulate matter. This remnant could then be examined.

2. Koch adopted the simplest of all the culture methods, viz., exposing a plate of gelatine or agar for a longer or shorter time to the air of which examination is desired. By gravity the suspended bacteria fall on the plate and start growth. As a matter of quantitative exactitude, this method is not to be recommended, but it frequently proves an excellent method for qualitative estimation.

3. The Method of Miquel. Pasteur was the first to analyse air by the culture method, and he adopted a plan which in principle is washing the air in some fluid culture medium which will retain all the particulate matter, which may then be cultured directly or sub-cultured into any favourable medium.

Sedgwick's Sugar-Tube

Frankland, Petri, Pasteur, Sedgwick, and others have suggested the adoption of methods of filtration. These depend upon catching the organisms contained in the air by filtering them through sterilised sand or sugar, and then examining these media in the ordinary way. Many different kinds of apparatus have been invented. Petri aspirates through a glass tube containing sterilised sand, which after use is distributed in Petri dishes and covered with gelatine.

The principal objection to this method is the presence of the opaque particles of sand in and under the gelatine. Probably it was this which suggested the use of soluble filters like sugar. Pasteur introduced the principle, and Frankland and others have followed it out. The apparatus most largely used is that known as Sedgwick's Tube. This consists of a comparatively small glass tube, about a foot long. Half of it has a bore of 2.5 cm., and the other half a bore of .5 cm. It is sterilised at 150° C., after which the dry, finely granulated cane-sugar is inserted in such a way as to occupy an inch or more of the narrow part of the tube next the wide part.

Next to it is placed a wool plug, and the whole is again sterilised at 130° C. for two hours, care being taken that the sugar does not melt. After sterilisation an india-rubber tube is fixed to the end of the narrow portion, and thus it is attached to the aspirator. The measured quantity (5–20 litres) of air is drawn through, and any particulate matter is caught in the sugar. Warm, nutrient gelatine (10–15 cc.) is now poured into the broad end of the tube, and by means of a sterilised stilette the sugar is pushed down into the gelatine, where it quickly dissolves. We have now in the gelatine all the micro-organisms in the air which has been drawn through the tube. After plugging with wool at both ends, the tube is rolled on ice or under a cold-water tap in order to fix the gelatine all round the inner wall of the tube, which is incubated at room temperature. In a day or two the colonies appear, and may be examined.

Sedgwick's Tube
Fixed upon Tripod for Air Examination

Micro-organisms in the Air. Schwann was one of the first to point out that when a decoction of meat is effectually screened from the air, or supplied solely with calcined air, putrefaction does not set in. Helmholtz and Pasteur confirmed this, but it may be said with some truth that Schwann originated the germ theory, and Lister applied it in the treatment of wounds. Lister believed that if he could surround wounds with filtered air the results would be as good as if they were shut off from the air altogether.

It was Tyndall who first laid down the general principles upon which our knowledge of organisms in the air is based. That the dust in the air was mainly organic matter, living or dead, was a comparatively new truth; that epidemic disease was not due to "bad air" and "foul drains," but to germs conveyed in the air, was a prophecy as daring as it was correct. From these and other like investigations it came to be recognised that putrefaction begins as soon as bacteria gain an entrance to the putrefiable substance, that it progresses in direct proportion to the multiplication of bacteria, and that it is retarded when they diminish or lose vitality.

Tyndall made it clear that both as regards quantity and quality of micro-organisms in the air there neither is nor can be any uniformity. They may be conducted on particles of dust—"the raft theory"—but being themselves endowed with a power of flotation commensurate with their extreme smallness and the specific lightness of their composition, dust as a vehicle is not really requisite.

Nevertheless the estimation of the amount of dust present in a sample of air is a very good index of danger. It is to Dr. Aitken that we are indebted for devising a method by which we can measure dust particles in the air, even though they be invisible. His ingenious experiments, reported in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (vol. xxxv.), have demonstrated that by supersaturation of air the invisible dust particles may become visible. As is now well known, Dr. Aitken has been able to prove that fogs, mists, and the like do not occur in dust-free air, and are due to condensation of moisture upon dust particles. But it should be remembered that, though dust forms a vehicle for bacteria, dusty air is often comparatively free from bacteria. Hence, after all, the necessary conditions for dissemination of bacteria in air are two, namely, some degree of air-current and dry surfaces.

This latter condition is one of essential importance. Bacteria cannot leave a moist surface either under evaporation or by means of air-currents. Only when there is considerable molecular disturbance, such as splashing, can there possibly be microbes transmitted to the surrounding air. This fact, coupled with the influence of gravitation, is the reason why sewer gas and all air contained within moist perimeters is almost germ-free; whereas from dry surfaces the least air-current is able to raise countless numbers of organisms. Quite recently this principle has been admirably illustrated in two series of investigations made upon expired and inspired air.

In a report to the Smithsonian Institution of Washington (1895) upon the composition of expired air, it is concluded that "in ordinary quiet respiration no bacteria, epithelial scabs, or particles of dead tissue are contained in the expired air. In the act of coughing or sneezing such organisms or particles may probably be thrown out." The interior of the cavity of the mouth and external respiratory tract is a moist perimeter, from the walls of which no organisms can rise except under molecular disturbance.

The position is precisely analogous to the germ-free sewer air as established by Messrs. Laws and Andrewes for the London County Council. The popular idea that infection can be "given off by the breath" is contrary to the laws of organismal pollution of air. The required conditions are not fulfilled, and such breath infection must be of extremely rare occurrence. The air can only be infective when filled with organisms arising from dried surfaces.

The other series of investigations were conducted by Drs. Hewlett and St. Clair Thompson, and dealt with the fate of micro-organisms in inspired air and micro-organisms in the healthy nose. They estimated that from 1500 to 14,000 bacteria were inspired every hour. Yet, as we have pointed out, expired air contains practically none at all. It is clear, then, that the inspired bacteria are detained somewhere.

Lister has pointed out, from observation on a pneumo-thorax caused by a wound of the lung by a fractured rib, that bacteria are arrested before they reach the air-cells of the lung; hence it is at some intermediate stage that they are detained. Hewlett and Thomson examined the mucus from the wall of the trachea, and found it germ-free. It was only when they reached the mucous membrane and moist vestibules and vibrissæ of the nose that they found bacteria. Here they were present in abundance. The ciliated epithelium, the moist mucus, and the bactericidal influence of the wandering or "phagocyte" cells probably all contribute to their final removal.

There can be no doubt that the large number of bacteria present in the moist surfaces of the mouth is the cause of a variety of ailments, and under certain conditions of ill-health organisms may through this channel infect the whole body. Dental caries will occur to everyone's mind as a disease possibly due to bacteria. As a matter of fact, probably acids (due to acid secretion and acid fermentation) and micro-organisms are two of the chief causes of decay of teeth. Defects in the enamel, inherent or due to injury, retention of débris on and around the teeth, and certain pathological conditions of the secretion of the mouth are predisposing causes, which afford a suitable nidus for putrefactive bacteria. The large quantity of bacteria which a decayed tooth contains is easily demonstrated.

From the two series of experiments which we have now considered we may gather the following facts:

(a) That air may contain great numbers of bacteria which may be readily inspired.

(b) That in health those inspired do not pass beyond the moist surface of the nasal and buccal cavities.

(c) That here there are various influences of a bactericidal nature at work in defence of the individual.

(d) That expired air contains, as a rule, no bacteria whatever.

The practical application of these things is a simple one. To keep air free from bacteria, the surroundings must be moist. Strong acids and disinfectants are not required. Moisture alone will be effectual. Two or three examples at once occur to the mind.

Anthrax spores are conveyed from time to time from dried infected hides and skins to the hands or bodies of workers in warehouses in Bradford and other places. If the surroundings were moist, and the hides moist, anthrax spores and all other bacteria would not remain free in the air.

The bacilli or spores of tubercle present in sputum in great abundance cannot, by any chance whatever, infect the air until, and unless, the sputum dries. So long as the expectorated matter remains on the pavement or handkerchief wet, the surrounding air will contain no bacilli of tubercle. But when in the course of time the sputum dries, then the least current of air will at once infect itself with the dried spores and bacilli.

Typhoid Fever, too, occupies the same position. Only when the excrement dries can the contained bacteria infect the air. It is of course well known that the common channel of infection in typhoid fever is not the air, whereas the reverse holds true of tuberculosis.

The writer recently obtained some virulent typhoid excrement, and placed it in a shallow glass vessel under a bell-jar, with similar vessels of sterilised milk and of water, all at blood-heat. So long as the excrement remained moist, even though it soon lost its more or less fluid consistence, the milk and water remained uninfected. But when the excrement was completely dried it required but a few hours to reveal typhoid bacilli in the more absorptive fluid, milk, and at a later stage the water also showed clear signs of pollution.

This evidence points in the same direction as that which has gone before. If the excrement of patients suffering from typhoid dries, the air will become infected; if, on the other hand, it passes in a moist state into the sewer, even though untreated with disinfectants, all will be well as regards the surrounding air.

Before passing on to consider other matters concerning organisms in the air, we may draw attention to some interesting observations recorded by Mr. S. G. Shattock on the negative action of sewer air in raising the toxicity of lowly virulent bacilli of diphtheria. Some direct relationship, it has been surmised, exists between breathing sewer air and "catching" diphtheria. Clearly it cannot be that the sewer air contains the bacillus. But some have supposed that the sewer air has had a detrimental effect by increasing the virulent properties of bacilli already in the human tissues.

Two cultivations of lowly virulent bacilli were therefore grown by Mr. Shattock in flasks upon a favourable medium over which was drawn sewer air. This was continued for two weeks or five weeks respectively. Yet no increased virulence was secured. Such experiments require ample confirmation, but even from this it will be seen that sewer air does not necessarily have a favouring influence upon the virulence of the bacilli of diphtheria.

It should be noted that the bacilli of diphtheria are capable of lengthened survival outside the body, and are readily disseminated by very feeble air-currents. The condition necessary for their existence outside the body for any period above two or three days is moisture. Dried diphtheria bacilli soon lose their vitality. It is probably owing to this fact that the disease is not as commonly conveyed by air as, for example, tubercle.

The influence of gravity upon bacteria in the air may be observed in various ways, in addition to its action within a limited area like a sewer or a room. Miquel found in some investigations in Paris that, whereas on the Rue de Rivoli 750 germs were present in a cubic metre, yet at the summit of the Pantheon only 28 were found in the same quantity of air. At the tops of mountains air is germ-free, and bacteria increase in proportion to descent. As Tyndall has pointed out, even ultra-microscopic cells obey the law of gravitation. This is equally true in the limited areas of a laboratory or warehouse and in the open air.

The conditions which affect the number of bacteria in the air are various. After a fall of rain or snow they are very markedly diminished; during a dry wind they are increased. In open fields, free from habitations, they are fewer, as would be expected, than in the vicinity of manufactories, houses, or towns.

A dry, sandy soil or a dry surface of any kind will obviously favour the presence of organisms in the air. Frankland found that fewer germs were present in the air in winter than in summer, and that when the earth was covered with snow the number was greatly reduced. Miquel and Freudenreich have declared that the number of atmospheric bacteria is greater in the morning and evening between the hours of six and eight than during the rest of the day. But we venture to express the hope that such coincidental facts may not be exalted into principles.

There is no numerical standard for bacteria in the air as there is in water. The open air possibly averages about 250 per cubic metre. On the seacoast this number would fall to less than half; in houses and towns it would rise according to circumstances, and frequently in dry weather reach thousands per cubic metre. When it is remembered that air possesses no pabulum for bacteria as do water and milk, it will be understood that bacteria do not live in the air. They are only driven by air-currents from one dry surface to another.

Hence the quality and quantity of air organisms depend entirely upon environment and physical conditions. In some researches which the writer made into the air of workshops in Soho in 1896, it was instructive to observe that fewer bacteria were isolated by Sedgwick's sugar-tube in premises which appeared to the naked eye polluted in a large degree than in other premises apparently less contaminated. In the workroom of a certain skin-curer the air was densely impregnated with particles from the skin, yet scarcely a single bacterium was isolated.

In the polishing-room of a well-known hat firm, in which the air appeared to the naked eye to be pure, and in which there was ample ventilation, there were found four or five species of saprophytic bacteria. Quite recently Mr. S. R. Trotman, public analyst for the city of Nottingham, estimated the bacterial quality of the air of the streets of that town during "the goose fair" held in the autumn. He used a modification of Hesse's apparatus in which the gelatine is replaced by glycerine.

The air was slowly drawn through and measured in the usual way. Sterilised water was then added to bring the glycerine to a known volume, the liquid thoroughly mixed, and a series of gelatine and agar plates made with quantities varying from 0.1 to 2 cc. By this method a large number of bacteria were detected in this particular investigation, including Staphylococcus pyogenes aureus et albus, the common Bacillus subtilis, and B. coli communis.

During a six years' investigation the air of the Montsouris Park yielded, according to Miquel, an average of 455 bacteria per cubic metre. In the middle of Paris the average per cubic metre was nearly 4000. Flügge accepts bacteria per cubic metre as a fair average. From this fact he estimates that "a man during a lifetime of seventy years inspires about 25,000,000 bacteria, the same number contained in a quarter of a litre of fresh milk."

Many authorities would place the average much below 100 per cubic metre, but even if we accept that figure it is at once clear how relatively small it is. This is due, as we have mentioned, to sunlight, rain, desiccation, dilution of air, moist surfaces, etc. So essentially does the bacterial content of air depend upon the facility with which certain bacteria withstand drying that Dr. Eduardo Germano has addressed himself first to drying various pathogenic species and then to mixing the dried residue with sterilised dust and observing to what degree the air becomes infected. Typhoid appears to withstand comparatively little dessication, without losing its virulence.

Nevertheless, it is able to retain vitality in a semi-dried condition, and it is owing to this circumstance in all probability that it possesses such power of infection. Diphtheria, on the other hand, is, as we have pointed out, capable of lengthened survival outside the body, particularly when surrounded with dust. The question of their power of resisting long drying is an unsettled point. The power of surviving a drying process is, according to Germano, possessed by the streptococcus.

This is not the case with cholera or plague. Dr. Germano classifies bacteria, as a result of his researches, into three groups: first, those like plague, typhoid, and cholera, which cannot survive drying for more than a few hours; second, those like the bacilli of diphtheria, and streptococci, which can withstand it for a longer period; thirdly, those like tubercle, which can very readily resist drying for months and yet retain their virulence. It will be obvious that from these data it is inferred that Groups 1 and 2 are rarely conveyed by the air, whereas Group 3 is frequently so conveyed. Miquel has recently demonstrated that soil bacteria or their spores can remain alive in hermetically sealed tubes for as long a time as sixteen years. Even at the end of that period the soil inoculated into a guinea-pig produced tetanus.

The presence of pathogenic bacteria in the air is, of course, a much rarer contamination than the ordinary saprophytes. Tubercle has been not infrequently isolated from dry dust in consumption hospitals, and in exit ventilating shafts at Brompton the bacillus has been found. From dried sputum it has, of course, been many times isolated, even after months of desiccation. M. Lalesque failed to isolate it from the dry soil surrounding some garden seats in a locality frequented by phthisical patients.

The writer also failed to isolate it from the same soil. But a very large mass of experimental evidence attests the fact that the air in proximity to dried tubercular sputum or discharges may contain the specific bacillus of the disease. Diphtheria in the same way, but in a lesser degree, may be isolated from the air, and from the nasal mucous membrane of nurses, attendants, and patients in a ward set apart for the treatment of the disease.

Delalivesse, examining the air of wards at Lille, found that the contained bacteria varied more or less directly with the amount of floating matter, and depended also upon the vibration set up by persons passing through the ward and the heavy traffic in granite-paved streets adjoining. Bacillus coli, staphylococci, and streptococci, as well as B. tuberculosis, were isolated by this observer.

Some new light has been thrown upon the subject of pathogenic organisms in air by Neisser in his investigations concerning the amount and rate of air-currents necessary to convey certain species through the atmosphere. He states that the bacteria causing diphtheria, typhoid fever, plague, cholera, and pneumonia, and possibly the common Streptococcus pyogenes, are incapable of being carried by the molecules of atmospheric dust which the ordinary insensible currents of air can support, whilst Bacillus anthracisB. pyocyaneus, and the bacillus of tubercle are capable of being aërially conveyed. This work will require further confirmation, but if its truth be established, it proves that attempted aërial disinfection of the first group of diseases is useless.

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Newman, George. 2015.Bacteria. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved September 2022 from

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