A new study shows the subway is covered in microbes, but it's not quite as gross as you think
There are plenty of reasons to stay away from the lady in way-too-short gym shorts on the subway. Not least of which are the germs she's sure to be smearing all over the seat. Can those sweaty germs actually hurt you? And what about the other public places like handrails and ticket machines? Are those totally gross, too? Thankfully, scientists were curious enough to find out for everyone (since we're all sufficiently grossed out by now).
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tested cars from three subway lines in Boston to find out what kinds of microbes subway riders pass around to one another. Not surprisingly, they discovered the seats, walls, and poles of the cars plus the screens and walls near ticket machines—yep, pretty much every surface—were covered in microbes. The surprising part was most of the bugs being passed around weren't "bad"—meaning they weren't considered resistant to antibiotics and they didn't carry other potentially dangerous side effects. In fact, researchers said the subway areas they swabbed were lower in these worrisome microorganisms than what exists in your gut already. (Whew, and ew!) Plus, you're already covered in germs—3D Bacteria Maps Prove It.
"Healthy people do not need to be worried," says Tiffany Hsu, study author and a research assistant at the school's department of biostatistics. "Most of the bugs present are found on normal human skin or oral sites, so most individuals would probably carry them as well." Still, washing your hands after riding the subway wouldn't hurt, she adds. (On the other hand, there is a gross parasite that's been found lurking in swimming pools.)
Hsu and her colleagues' findings, which are being published this week in the American Society for Microbiology's journal mSystems, give a baseline of the microbes out there so researchers can measure future public health crises, like a major flu outbreak.
The researchers also found different types of bugs in different areas. Skin and oral microbes that spread by sneezing or touching were found in high numbers on subway poles, and vaginal microbes were present on seats. The phrase "vaginal microbes" might make you shudder, but it doesn't mean a rider's vagina came in skin-to-seat contact. Those types of bugs can be passed through clothing. And it'd take a lot for them to actually infect you, Hsu says. The microbes would have to stay alive, be picked up by your clothing in an area where it could survive (versus, say, your arm), and then compete against other bugs to score a spot in the microbe community. (Yeah, sorry to report that you have a community's amount of bugs on you at all times.) There are certain hotbeds though that contain more germs and bacteria than you'd want to know about—learn about these 10 items you probably wouldn't want to share.)
Bottom line: Even though the subway's covered in microbes, it's not likely you'll pick up other women's vaginal germs. "For now, it largely seems that they cannot be transferred," Hsu says. "Our skin and immune systems provide a great defense!" Good to know, but no one would blame you for deciding to stand until the next stop.