(Health Secrets) The bizarre sights, pungent smells and largely invisible but ever-present germs that mark the unique New York City subway-riding experience are among the many details cataloged in a new bacterial study that, perhaps not shockingly, made some unsettling discoveries about the types of critters that lurk in the depths of NYC’s 232 miles of subway transit. Although NYC subways are unique, this information can be used to approximate what is probably lurking in your public transportation, no matter where you live.
Dr. Christopher E. Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medical College, along with his colleagues, took DNA samples from turnstiles, handrails, poles, seats and other surfaces in the NYC subways and tested them for bacterial and human DNA. Over the course of a year-and-a-half, the team performed 1,500 swabs at unique locations throughout the city’s five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
Later analyses of these DNA samples revealed that almost half of them came from organisms that aren’t even cataloged, meaning nobody knows what they are. And a mere 0.2 percent matched the human genome, suggesting that the vast majority of NYC subway germs originate from non-human or otherwise unidentified sources.
“People don’t look at a subway pole and think, ‘It’s teeming with life,'” stated Dr. Mason about the findings. “After this study, they may.”
Dysentery, bubonic plague, meningitis and anthrax all identified in NYC subways
With more than 5.5 million riders daily, the NYC subway system is hardly the cleanest way to trek around the city. Among the 466 subway stations mapped as part of the study, more than 15,000 different types of microbes were identified, originating mostly from bugs, plants and to a lesser extent humans, according to the researchers.
And while most of the pathogens identified during the study are regarded by scientists as generally harmless, the unidentified ones are admittedly unknown in terms of their risk to public health. And then there’s those few samples of bubonic plague, dysentery, meningitis and anthrax that were identified as well, raising the concern level even further.
A total of 67 bacterial species associated with disease were identified during the sweep, but these were found to be present in only 12 percent of the collected samples. Other identified bacterial species included those associated with food poisoning, radiation resistance, toxic cleanup, medical device infections, antibiotic resistance, sepsis, urinary tract infections and respiratory ailments.
According to the study, serious illnesses identified on NYC subways include:
• Bubonic plague at 3 stations
• Dysentery at 3 stations
• E. coli at 56 stations
• Food poisoning pathogens at 215 stations
• Meningitis at 3 stations
• Strep infections at 66 stations
• Tetanus at 9 stations
NYC subways are still safe, insists MTA
Despite all this, the study’s authors insist the threat of infection or harm is minimal, a sentiment also expressed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority following the publishing of the study in the journal Cell. The three DNA samples containing bubonic plague and the two samples containing anthrax all appeared “not to be alive,” reports the Daily Mail, and most of the other germs aren’t all that menacing, the researchers claim
“You wouldn’t want to lick all the poles, even though you’d probably be fine,” Dr. Mason is quoted as saying, adding that exposing young children to these germs will actually make them healthier. “The best thing to do with newborns is roll them like sushi on the subway ground.”
“Heat maps” illustrating the areas around NYC where various germs are located is available through the official PathoMap website: