As someone who rides BART to work when I don’t bike, this is a disturbing finding: On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria):

The Bay Citizen commissioned Darleen Franklin, a supervisor at San Francisco State University’s biology lab, to analyze the bacterial content of a random BART seat. The results may make you want to stand during your trip.

Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections, although Ms. Franklin cautioned that the MRSA findings were preliminary.

High concentrations of at least nine bacteria strains and several types of mold were found on the seat. Even after Ms. Franklin cleaned the cushion with an alcohol wipe, potentially harmful bacteria were found growing in the fabric.

Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, played down the threat of infection from harmful bacteria on a BART seat. “I suspect it’s not a very big problem,” Dr. Swartzberg said. “That said, if there’s another way to do it, where you can clean it better, then you should do it.”

He said the cloth seats most likely allowed bacteria to flourish because they were more difficult to clean and disinfect.

I’m not generally too worried about measurements of bacteria or mold on outdoor surfaces, because most aren’t pathogenic, and your body can generally fight off the ones that are, if you aren’t immuno-compromised. There’s some reason to think that your immune system benefits from the chance to regularly fight back against small-scale contact with bacteria.

But MRSA is different. This strain of Staphylococcus aureus is resistant to the dominant antibiotics used against staph infections. It kills thousands, and can tremendously difficult to treat even in otherwise healthy people.

The story notes that BART is looking at new seats, and frankly they can’t switch to non-upholstered surfaces soon enough. Who knows what combinations of urine, phlegm, and other grossness have been absorbed into the current cloth covers.


  1. #1 Cuttlefish
    March 6, 2011

    When you make your seat selection
    Note the coffee-colored stains,
    Which were found, upon inspection,
    To contain resistant strains—
    A bacterial infection
    Which the Transit man explains
    Is a function of the fabric
    That’s a feature of these trains.

    You could start your own collection
    Of the stuff beneath the seats
    Crumbs of crackers or confections
    Little scraps of luncheon meats
    It’s a sample of perfection,
    What a hungry microbe eats
    In a perfect little petri dish
    That runs beneath the streets

    For the customers’ protection
    Every night they try to clean,
    And to figure a correction
    For the problems that are seen
    But keep up with your injections
    Of all relevant vaccines
    Cos these buggers are resistant
    And they’re cunning, and they’re mean

  2. #2 Advanced Practice Nurse Ginger
    March 12, 2011

    Bugs are not the best outcome measure here. Don’t just look at the cultures, look at the epidemiology. Are BART riders getting MRSA infections at greater rates than matched control non-BART riders? The seat cultures do suggest further inquiry is warranted.

    If so, then invest in a solution. If not, then there is a lot of competition for those scarce infection prevention resource dollars, like research on a new antibiotic.

    Follow the scientific evidence trail, don’t go back on that principle now just because something sounds dangerous or undesirable.

    Oh, and do wash your hands after using BART. That much we can ascertain from this result.

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