Metro Escalator Handrails Carry Most Bacteria

11:44 PM, Dec 20, 2010   |    comments
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WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- It's that time of year again, when hidden bacteria lurks among us! It seems everybody has a cold, the flu or at least, a case of the sniffles.

And if you ride public transportation, you may wonder, as we did, just how germ-contaminated some of the handrails are. And if you're a parent, when you ride a Metro escalator with your child, you probably tell them: hold onto the handrail!

9NEWS NOW did an unscientific survey to find out the CFUs, or colony forming units, per swab sample we collected.

Up to 700,000 passengers ride Metro trains every day on an average work week and many seem fully aware of the potential to share germs.

"I don't ride the subway much, but when I do I am worried about the germs. There's always someone when they start coughing and never cover their mouth I seem to cringe like eeeewwww, and I'm like always looking for my hand sanitizer, constantly," one passenger told us.

"You may see the occasional mouse running through the system or whatever, but other than that I mean it stays pretty clean," said a man who only rides Metro occasionally.

So how dangerous is the bacteria Metro passengers leave behind?

"People are constantly sneezing often," said a woman, clutching a tissue. "But I don't really worry about it because what I've noticed is that Metro cleans often, and they seem to disinfect often, so I guess what I do- I wash my hands a lot."

Said a male passenger with a smile, "I'll sneeze back at them!"

With the help of 9News intern Kimmy Moss, we swabbed escalator handrails, ticket machines and the poles that everyone holds onto when the train is in motion.

We brought the samples to the scientists at EMSL Analytical in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The lab specializes in environmental testing, including soil, water and air quality-- anything that can be contaminated by outside sources.

We asked this lab to determine the three most prominent types of bacteria found on our samples and which Metro location had the highest concentration.

"One of the samples had over three million counts of bacteria, per swab," said EMSL Research Scientist Farbod Nekouei.

Not surprisingly, the escalator handrail had the highest concentration of bacteria, with 3, 210,000 thousand CFUs or colony forming units per swab.

Theescalator seems like a high-traffic area, so anything that's not being cleaned or disinfected within the period of time, it can be transferred from a person to the area, which in this case is the escalator," said Nekouei.

The bacteria we found is pseudomonas putida, commonly found in the environment.

We asked if it was basically dirt.

"It's a dirt bacteria, that is correct," said Nekouei.

The ticket machines revealed an average of 300 CFUs of microbacterium barkeri per swab. That shared handrail, 200 CFUs of staphylococcus hominis, a skin bacteria.

The bacteria types we found are common and unlikely to cause an infection in a healthy person.

"The worst case scenario could be if the person is immuno-compromised. That means their immune system is not as strong as everybody else. So that can cause a complication but these bacteria are non-pathogenic, so in a healthy person, it's not going to really have affect," said Nekouei.

"We use a disinfectant cleaner on all the touch surfaces-fare card machines, through the fare gates, all those typical places you'd expect," said Joan Lelacheur, the Deputy Chief of Metro's Environmental Management.

She says all surfaces are wiped down on a daily basis. Every month, trains are thoroughly cleaned, including the carpets.

"Any public transportation or any public spot is only as clean as whoever was the last person to touch it," she said.

In this season of giving, Metro asks that you try to keep your germs to yourself-covering your coughs and sneezes and using hand sanitizer.

Written by Andrea McCarren

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