Bad bugs in NYC subways? Worry more about bad people (and bed bugs).

By ACSH Staff — Feb 10, 2015
Attention has recently focused on a study of the genetic fingerprint, or DNA, of microorganisms found on and in NYC subways. Some genetic evidence of bacteria linked to bubonic plague and anthrax was found. Should New Yorkers (or anyone) be concerned about this? No.

antibacterial soapA recent New York Times article highlighted the findings of a study conducted by a large group of scientists (and interns and medical students) under the direction of Christopher E. Mason of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. This study, somewhat disarmingly titled Geospatial Resolution of Human and Bacterial Diversity with City-Scale Metagenomics, was published in the journal Cell Systems, and called attention to the wide spectrum of genetic profiles of microorganisms swabbed from various locations of the NYC subway system. The somewhat sensational treatment of the study s rather dry findings were further augmented by a breathless, bordering on hysterical, news media treatment seeming to indicate that remnants of bubonic plague (the Black Death of the 14th century) and anthrax bacilli might somehow pose a health threat to the city s commuters, theater-goers, and just plain folks.

Fortunately, in the following day s Times, journalist Anemona Hartocollis found a cure for the histrionics in her article, Bubonic Plague in the Subway System? Don t Worry About It.

ACSH s Dr. Gil Ross had this comment: We could not have said it better ourselves: of course, swabbing subway seats, poles and who-knows-where-else is going to give you all sorts of microbial footprints it would be astounding if it didn t. The fact that these investigators (who paid for this endeavor, I wonder?) found DNA fragments of pathogens means nothing: the genetic codes they found are not in any way infectious and pose zero risk to anyone. We harbor billions or trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses happily symbiotic and commensal with our own physiologies, and we all get along nicely, until we don t of course. I d suggest the next experiment these intrepid scientists undertake is to swab their own kitchen sinks and countertops and see how many virulent GI bugs they can identify. Seriously, this is a pretty big waste of time in order to get 15 minutes in the media spotlight.