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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The hidden dangers of public transportation

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

As a Bostonian gal, I love my Riverside Green T-line, Logan Airport, T-Bus and Amtrak (well, maybe not the last one) just as much as the next person. Like many others, the MBTA is my main means of transportation into Boston, Cambridge and everywhere. As much as these forms of public transportation are convenient, great for the budget and help us stay green, I act like a germaphobic lunatic every time I travel. I wipe the seats, try to balance without holding on to anything, refuse to put my bag on the floor, Purell incessantly, scowl at people who sneeze … you get the picture. I’m one of THOSE people. My point is I fear microbes more than getting mugged or lost and, according to recent studies, my fear is totally legitimate—ah redemption. Here’s why you should probably think twice while traveling too.

A University of Arizona study swabbed various locations on public transportation to see if germs lurked where one would expect. The findings were astounding. Tens of millions of E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria were discovered on one toilet seat on a Greyhound bus, which means other bacteria and viruses could be present that cause infection (SO happy I always put the paper down). On an Amtrak train, 100,000 bacteria per square inch were found including MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which is the bacteria you hear about on the news that people die from because it is antibiotic resistant. MRSA was also found on the café tables and coliform (fecal bacteria) was found by the millions on the restroom sink handles. Take a break if you’re getting queasy. The study also tested airplanes and discovered the germs are not only everywhere in the bathrooms but bacteria was also found in abundance on food trays, seat belts and luggage racks.

In the graph is the top places where researchers have found potentially dangerous bacteria and probably places you have not thought twice about. What’s the best way to avoid things like ingesting bacteria or catching a virus? Researchers stress the importance of washing your hands properly with warm water, and using soap with vigorous rubbing. Another option is using Purell as often as you remember. They also recommend wiping objects you touch often like cell phones, keyboards, car steering wheels, keys, house doorknobs, etc. with anti-bacterial wipes. I wipe everything down once a week as a Sunday routine, it’s probably a good habit you could get into and it takes me about 10 minutes to do. They also suggest you avoid touching your face, eyes, mouth or other mucus membranes while traveling to avoid contamination and, of course, always wash your hands before you eat.

Now, whether or not you need to be a maniac and wipe everything down with antibacterial wipes is up for debate and might be an extreme suggestion. Adapting to constant hand washing habits while keeping aware of these bacteria lurking facts, however, may be advantageous to your health the next time you use public transportation.

One more thing, don’t think I forgot about nagging you for the flu shot. Why do you think that person is sniffling behind you on the T? Just get the shot already—they are being offered at the health center Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. for $20 in cash (Walgreens is currently $29).

As always, tune in next week for more health tips and send me an a-mail at with any health-related questions you may have.