Home Asides The subways: a breeding ground or a natural vaccine?

The subways: a breeding ground or a natural vaccine?

by Benjamin Kabak

As winter descends upon New York, it often seems as though half of the city walks around with the sniffles. Anecdotally, I’ve always thought the subways help contribute to the spread of germs in New York City. Straphangers cough and sneeze with little regard for manners, and subway poles are the third-rail equivalent of a germ conductor. Touch at your own risk during the winter.

Today, the Daily News briefly highlights a British study that confirms as much. Per David Goldiner, “public transit riders are six times more likely to suffer from acute respiratory infections – and occasional riders are most at risk.” Of the 138 patients who participated in the study, those who rode a bus or a train were far more likely to get sick than those who did not, but those who ride frequently built up a natural defense against the germs found on public transit. I’ll continue to cough or sneeze into my sleeve and avoid too much skin-to-surface contact while riding the rails.

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Spencer K January 18, 2011 - 12:03 pm

I read something recently that people with weaker immune systems generally have an easier time with colds because of the slower and less severe response. Of course, this really only applies mild viral attacks like cold or low grade flu.

Regardless, it pays to constantly wash your hands and avoid touching surfaces, and definitely avoid touching your face.

Also Ben, isn’t this an argument for standing in the door so you don’t have to hold the pole? =D

R. Graham January 18, 2011 - 12:58 pm

This may not be that argument for Ben but I’m sorry I have to. I sat on an express train early last year. While holding my newspaper a guy standing above me nasel dripped right on the paper. I got the apology, fine, but he wiped his nose with his hand and used the same one to hold the pole again. I had to turn away to hide my disgust.

John January 18, 2011 - 1:47 pm

Meh. Germs happen.

R. Graham January 18, 2011 - 10:31 pm

You’re right but some are worse than others. Late last year there was a brutal one going around. The more you do to try to avoid getting sick the better your chances as well as some of the people you come into contact with.

Rob B. January 18, 2011 - 5:15 pm

A few responses to this germ-fearing article:

1. Even those who work from home in the ‘burbs often have children and relatives who will eventually infect them. Unless you want to be the “bubble boy”, and as Seinfeld shows, that bubble can pop.

2. Those in the ‘burbs who work from home, and then get in their portable bubble (aka car), may escape direct germ contact. But they end up with far less physical exercise from walking — which puts them at serious risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc.

Alon Levy January 18, 2011 - 5:20 pm

Here’s the study, in case anyone cares. I’ll ask my med student ex-girlfriend for comments, but so far it looks weak to me, largely by its own admission. It mentions many drawbacks – it didn’t look at whether people ride at rush hour or not, may not have fully controlled for poverty (despite being taken in a city where transit is used mostly by the poor), has a very small sample size, and uses an imperfect proxy for acquiring an infection. It also cites lit review that finds no significant correlation.

Also, although the study finds a significant transit-infection correlation, the correlation between infrequent transit use and infection is not significant.


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