Reports of BART seat contamination may be overstating danger

SF State student Cara Stanislaw heads home after school by commuting from the Daly City BART station to Pittsburgh/Bay Point BART station on Monday, March 14. Sandy Ha / staff photographer

Andrea Simpson, an SF State student, has made it a ritual to either change her clothes or shower immediately after the one-hour BART ride from Daly City to her Concord home.

The accounting major said she prefers to stand on the train and use the handrail to keep her balance rather than enjoy the soft, comfortable seats BART customers have been riding for 40 years.

“I knew BART was sketchy, but now that the truth is out, I have to be more cautious,” 18-year-old Simpson said.

The truth Simpson alluded to is that fecal and skin-borne bacteria, resistant to antibiotics, along with different types of mold were discovered last week in a seat on a train traveling from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton.

The report has received national attention.

However, Darleen Franklin, whom the Bay Citizen commissioned to execute the study, said riders should not assume that there is a big public health risk at this point. The results were preliminary, she said.

“It would be inaccurate to say every seat on BART is contaminated with this bacterium because I only tested one random seat,” Franklin said. “I need a bigger sample.”

A more comprehensive analysis may eventually come, as Franklin said she would like to conduct an extensive study of the bacteria she found on BART when she is done with her master’s degree in microbiology at SF State this spring.

“What I found is meant to inform people, not scare them,” Franklin said. “My intention is to bring awareness to people about an unknown world of microbes that is out there.”

According to Franklin, it wasn’t a surprise to find the bacteria in a place where people with different hygiene practices and different origins, visit.

She said the fecal bacteria could have gotten on the train’s seat from a baby’s dirty diaper or from an adult who defecated on his or her clothes. The skin-borne bacterium is one that lives on human skin and nostrils.

Franklin is mainly concerned because the skin-borne bacterium she found showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a bacterium people acquire through open wounds. The bacterium then attacks the immune system, causing 19,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

She said the elderly, children, people with open wounds, and those with an already weakened immune system are most vulnerable to MRSA.

Yet, despite the potential health risks, BART President Bob Franklin said BART will not replace its seats until 2017.

“To change the current fleet for a limited period of time when new cars are on the horizon would be expensive,” the president wrote in an e-mail. “It would be more cost effective to replace our current seats more frequently.”

The agency’s current policy allows BART seats to be changed every three years at a cost of $12,500 and spends $595,000 annually to dry clean 300 to 500 of the 40,000 seats each week.

According to BART’s website the “Fleet of the Future,” a project that will replace seats in all 669 train cars, is scheduled to deliver its first 10 pilot cars in 2015.

“We will be looking for ways to improve the cleanliness of the car interiors in the upcoming fiscal year budget, which we are formulating right now,” Bob Franklin said. “This may involve additional car cleaners, new supplies and a trial of new seating options.”

The BART Board of Directors has yet to select a model different from the existing cushioned seats since it is in the process of evaluating seats from transit agencies throughout the country, Bob Franklin said.

Meanwhile, he said people should use the hand sanitizer provided at all 44 BART stations before and after riding the trains.

Still, the primary concern Darlene Franklin has is that it is becoming increasingly common to find antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“We have created the environment for bacteria to grow and become resistant to drugs,” she said. “It’s the result of feeding antibiotics to food animals, whose feces goes into the soil we use for crops.”

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists website – a non-profit organization that aims to create a healthier and safer environment – because of the overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions for animals, it is necessary to add human antibiotics to the animals’ feed to accelerate growth and prevent diseases.

The site said approximately 70 percent of antibiotics produced in the country are used in feed for animals. This allows bacteria to become resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

However, with new seats arriving by 2015 at the earliest, BART customers will have to hope the bacterium is not endemic to the entire fleet. And if riders are concerned with the health risks, it might be a good idea to follow Simpson’s advice – and head for the showers.

Written by