Is Public Transit Making Me Sick?

Medically Reviewed

I am among the millions of Americans who take public transit to work –some take the bus or train, and others fly regularly.  And seemingly every day, I see a person who is sick, likely contagious and spewing germs into the air for mass consumption.

Is my commute making me sick?

With hundreds of thousands of daily riders, it may be difficult to avoid germs and bacteria altogether.  Every person adds 37 million bacteria to the air for every hour we stay in a room, according to a UC Berkley and Yale University report, many of which will linger even after a person leaves a room (or train,  car or plane).  While many people spend upwards of half an hour on public transit, commuters are coming into contact with untold millions of potentially dangerous substances.

Researchers from ABC News conducted a study, taking samples from 12 travel-related locations – a car, taxi, airport, airplane, rental car and a variety of other travel-related locations (restaurants, hotels, public bathrooms, etc.).  The study found a large number of dangerous and sickening germs and bacteria on these platforms, a troubling fact for those concerned about staying healthy.  The research showed that 28 percent of the samples contained traces of E. coli; more than half showed indications of fecal matter.

Of the locations tested for a Good Morning America spot, Greyhound bus bathrooms were found to be the germiest, with tens of millions of E. coli bacteria on one toilet seat.  Similarly disgusting, Amtrak trains were found to carry 100,000 bacteria per square inch of surface

According to one study cited in the Wall Street Journal, the risk of catching a disease on an airplane increases 20 percent, for example.  Despite the fact that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air filters catch 99.97 percent of bacteria and virus-carrying particles (according to the airlines), recycled air still opens the door to those remaining particles to do damage.  And this says nothing of the physical strains associated with air (or other) travel, including dehydration, lost sleep and increased stress levels, to name a few.

A 2009 Australian study tracked the spread of the H1N1 influenza strain on long-haul flights, finding that two percent of passengers boarded planes infected and five percent were infected upon landing.  Coach passengers were found to have a 3.6 percent increased risk of contracting the condition if they sat within two rows of someone with symptoms, and the risk doubled if passengers sat within a two seat radius.

Of course, these study results should be taken with a grain of salt – humans encounter millions of bacteria every day in all kinds of settings, not just public restrooms or commonly handled areas in public transportation.  As quoted in the Good Morning America piece, University of Arizona microbiologist and germ expert Dr. Chuck Gerba warned that over-paranoia is unnecessary, and that people should instead work to keep the odds of avoiding diseases in their favor.

One of the major pieces of advice offered by experts is to continually wash your hands and to be wary of the surfaces with which people come into contact. From there, avoid putting hands in your mouth, ears, eyes or other orifices through which bacteria could enter the body. Unfortunately, it is not always quite that simple, as research has found that merely sitting on a cushioned, fabric-covered seat could be problematic, as learned through testing of seats on the San Francisco BART trains.

Though germs can't be avoided entirely – many of which you may be carrying already – but precautions can be taken to avoid getting sick.