Friday, May 10, 2013

The Grossest Things You Will Breathe on the Subway

Posted By on Fri, May 10, 2013 at 12:36 PM

No way out.
  • No way out.

Listen, today is not a great day for subway news. And I know you know the subway is gross. Even when it's kind of empty and air conditioned and doesn't smell like some kind of moving, large-scale dutch oven, it's gross. All the hands that touched this pole before you, and what they touched before the pole, or maybe who sat on that seat before you if you're wearing a short skirt or shorts and jesus christ maybe let's just all stay home and agree to keep in touch via the internet.

But even that wouldn't work, because you know what you can never, ever escape? Air. And, thanks to an enterprising group of Colorado scientists, we now know pretty exactly what subway air (and street air, which is largely the same thing, apparently) is comprised of. It could all be much worse—the full report clarifies, "we encountered no organisms of public health concern," which is great—but learning about the fungi and "human skin commensal bacteria" we suck into our lungs on a daily basis could also be, well, a lot less gross. Let's explore.


Human Skin

Of all the random garbage floating around in the air, around 15 percent was comprised of human skin particles, and the accompanying Staphylococcus bacteria. What kind of skin, you ask? A lot if it came from pretty normal, exposed places like hands, feet, arms, and collarbones. At least some of it, though, was believed to come from the "gluteal crease," which Wikipedia helpfully clarifies as "colloquially, the 'butt crack' or 'arse crack.'" Oof.

Rotting before your eyes.
  • Rotting before your eyes.

Rotting Wood, Mushrooms, Mystery Fungi

Of the myriad "fungal sequences" found in the subway air, most of them were pretty typical, comprised of mushrooms, mildews, plant pathogens, and yeasts. Gross, but not so different from essentially everywhere else on the earth. A good 20 percent of these "had no counterparts" in the outside world, however, and there was an unusually high occurrence of "wood rot fungi," which researchers suspect is a function of wooden track structure. Rotting wooden track structure.



This is actually sort of interesting. In the midst of all the unidentifiable grime, a huge chunk of air particles were actually comprised of "genera and species characteristic of soil." As in, actual dirt. The kind things grow in! Not so bad, really.

Just think of it as a rat bath.
  • Just think of it as a rat bath.

"Environmental Water"

The other side of the "normal stuff" coin here is something the study tactfully calls "environmental water." Which sounds nice and Poland Spring-y, until you think about the little puddles of filth in the tracks, inexplicably under benches, rhythmically falling from the ceiling and creating those inexplicable little perma-pustules on the platform at, say, Canal. You may be smart enough not to drink it (I hope?), but still, you're breathing it. The city itself is inside you, inside all of us. And I am maybe moving to a bio-dome.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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About The Author

Virginia K. Smith

Virginia K. Smith

Virginia K. Smith is the Assistant Editor at The L Magazine and a Bushwick resident. Her profile picture was taken at Summerscreen, because she is a real team player.

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