OR: Riding TriMet? Plenty of Bugs Could be Sharing Your Seat

July 14--As a Portland State University microbiologist, Pamela Yeh thought she knew where germs liked to ride on TriMet: the handstraps.

In fact, Yeh's refusal to hold the loops while standing on a train once resulted in her tumbling onto a bike. She limped off with a nasty hip bruise.

"They've always grossed me out," she said of the hand holds grabbed by countless strangers every day. "But I'm starting to rethink touching them."

It wasn't the bruise that changed her mind. Rather, Yeh was swayed by a new analysis of the bacteria that lurks on TriMet vehicles. Those hand straps, it turns out, are nowhere near as dirty as the transit agency's 24,683 bus seats.

Even as public health experts fret about the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, money-strapped TriMet has made deep cuts to cleaning crews charged with scrubbing down its vehicles. With Oregon's largest transit agency giving bus and train hygiene less attention, The Oregonian asked Yeh's PSU biology lab to ride mid-day on several TriMet lines and conduct microbe tests.

Here's something to think about the next time a seat hog makes you stand on the bus ride home: Germs are swimming in those cloth seats. In fact, only the floors are dirtier. And not by much.

Yeh and her team sampled 2-inch patches on 13 random bus seats on Lines 4, 6, 8, 9 and 17. The average sample, they found, contained 80.1 bacteria colonies.

Preliminary results show that oxacillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus could be among the 120 bacteria colonies found on trains and buses. Commonly known as MRSA, the bug is notorious for rejecting antibiotics, eating flesh and causing pneumonia.

Of course, compared to the cloth bus seats, vinyl MAX train seats were relatively immaculate -- averaging just 1.8 bacteria colonies.

Still, John Townes, Oregon Health & Sciences University director of infection prevention and control, wasn't alarmed by the findings. The risk of being infected by harmful bacteria on public transit, he said, is probably no greater than it is at a movie theater or shopping mall.

"If you could put on some microscopic eyeglasses," Townes said, "you'd see bacteria are everywhere in the environment. We're fortunate to have immune systems that protect us from germs, and healthy, intact skin is an important part of that protection."

The reality, Townes said, is that many people walk around with staphylococci living on their skin and in their noses. The best protection remains regular hand washing, trimmed finger nails and covering open sores, he said.

TriMet wasn't surprised by the germs thriving on cloth bus seats.

Not only are the cloth seats harder to keep clean than the vinyl seats on MAX, but about 60 percent of the agency's 338,000 daily riders take buses. What's more, officials said, it's easier to spot messes and to clean MAX's vinyl seats.

But things will be different on 55 new buses arriving next spring.

"We are moving to vinyl seats for all new bus purchases," TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said.

Still, after two years of operating on red ink, TriMet has found itself sacrificing cleanliness to stave off further cuts to its already-minimized bus schedules.

Before last fall, for example, the agency dedicated eight employees to deep cleaning each bus once every 45 days. The "detailers" spent about three hours per vehicle scrubbing down the interior, removing gum and graffiti, and steam cleaning seats. But as part of its budget-balancing drive, TriMet gutted the crew. Now, only one person handles all three garages. Under the new cleaning schedule, buses get a detailed disinfection just once a year.

Members of a 37-person wash-and-fuel service crew still walk through 600 buses nightly, picking up trash and giving them a quick mop.

But hand holds are not wiped down nightly. A cloth seat pad is replaced only if it is soiled or torn. Otherwise, crews simply hit the seats with quick blasts of compressed air to lift dust.

Finally, a crew member hooks a giant, window-rattling vacuum called "the cyclone" to the front door opening.

On the rail side, TriMet has cut four of 33 jobs responsible for cleaning trains, among other duties.

On a cram-packed Line 4 bus in May, noon-time commuters gave Yeh's biology students sideways looks as they milled about, sterilized cotton swabs and plastic lab dishes in hands. The driver repeatedly glanced into an interior mirror. A few puzzled looks, but no questions.

Back at the lab, about 120 multi-colored colonies bloomed. The team has just started to sequence the different species, but Yeh said it's very likely that E. Coli and fecal bacteria are present. "People hear fecal bacteria and wonder if someone ... well, it's more about people not washing their hands," she said.

Far more worrisome, Yeh said, are colonies showing resistance to antibiotics. She said more testing is needed, but some are showing characteristics of MRSA. Highly resistant, MRSA attacks immune systems through skin breaks and plays a role in about 19,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Line 9 bus rider Keith Myers prefers not to think about germs on the bus. It's bad enough when someone sneezes, making other riders cringe or even jump, he said.

But he assumed the cloth seats were pretty filthy.

"My strategy is to always have clothing between me and the seat," he said. "And to wash my hands when I get off. I wish I could say I always remember to do that."

--Joseph Rose Follow PDXcommute on Twitter

Copyright 2011 - The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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