The subway is ostensibly a sordid place, one filled with used condoms, human excrement and wheels of cheese. But it appears we're not all in danger of contracting smallpox from a subway pole, or so says one scientist who's been hard at work swabbing train surfaces for the last few years. His results? Thanks to the strength of our immune systems, "the subway is not something to be scared of." Well, we'll see about that.
Dr. Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medical College is one of the very sciencey brains behind the "PathoMap" study, in which he and his team swab subways and other urban surfaces to paint a molecular portrait of the city. The study is embargoed until at least next week, but Mason presented a brief overview as part the American Museum of Natural History's SciCafe series last night, and he assured area germaphobes that subways aren't nearly as disgusting as one might imagine.
"You wouldn't want to lick all the poles, even though you'd probably be fine," he told us, noting that he unearthed "nothing traumatic" on the Poles of Death. "Wash your hands and don't walk around with a gaping wound."
According to Mason, the reason we haven't all been sickened by subway pole exposure is that our immune systems are strong enough to handle some of the gross bacteria we've stroked on the L train (see a sampling here). But he cautioned that in a world where Purell dispensers are stationed in every home and office, that may not always be the case. Infants and young children need to be exposed to pathogens in order to build immunity that can withstand a train pole. In fact, "the best thing to do with newborns is roll them like sushi on the subway ground," Mason said.
He's only half-joking. "More exposure [to germs] as a baby is better," he said, noting that, for instance, it's better to let an adorable dog lick a small child's face than shield it from canine tongue, in order to avoid future allergies and illnesses.
Another way to prevent a future ruled by Claritin? "The more cockroaches you're exposed to, the greater protection you'll have against allergies," Mason said. Bring your baby to my apartment building! And stay tuned for a list of all the gross stuff found on subways (shigella, ugh!) upon the study's release.