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Down in the Train, the Germs' Domain

Occupational health and safety specialist Robyn Gershon, DrPh, gets the train to work at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

Gershon didn't start out looking at germs. She got interested in subways when she heard reports of hearing loss among transit workers. While studying the issue, she decided to look at other subway health issues. What she found was ... not much. It turns out there's very little scientific information on infectious disease in the subways.

"Subway systis are big public-use spaces" Gershon states "There are 14 big U.S. subway systis and millions and millions of riders. For any number of reasons, there are health hazards. But there is this huge volume of people, and we are not studying it."

When Gershon turned her attention to infectious disease spread on subway systis, she found "not one scientific paper at all."

"You can imagine because of all the surfaces, all kinds of organisms can be transmitted from the hand rails, the head rests, the seats" she says. "It is almost inevitable disease transmission has happened, but it is hard to prove."

Meanwhile, Gershon is taking precautions.

"After riding the subway, I never put anything in my mouth without washing my hands" she says. "I don't touch a thing in my office without going to the sink. The rails and everything are loaded with pathogens. Hand washing is a simple thing, and it is the only thing you can do. I have seen a couple of people wearing face masks, but I wouldn't go that far. Clearly data are needed."