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Add germs to the list of New York subway perils

March 20, 1997
Web posted at: 4:20 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Jeanne Moos

NEW YORK (CNN) -- When it comes to the New York City subway system, it's not just the closing doors you want to stand clear of -- it's the germs the last rider left behind.

"Disgusting," commented one subway patron when confronted by the thought of the bacteria-laden transit system.

But most New Yorkers take the millions of invisible microbes in stride, just like they do every other hassle associated with America's No. 1 city.


"You're in New York City, honey," said another subway regular. "There are germs everywhere."

Germs everywhere except, surprise, the pole everyone hangs on, but we'll get to that later.

To sell its new antibacterial hand lotion, Bristol-Myers is using a national TV commercial featuring loving pictures of mother and child. But New Yorkers get a special, heartier ad campaign aimed at commuters, a campaign that makes a lot of jokes about subway poles.

The New York ads use catchy lines like "You know anyone named Sal Monella?" to draw people to their antibacterial product.


Poles apart

And Big Apple subway patrons can be a receptive audience. Some New Yorkers are so germ-conscious, they use their sleeves to keep from touching the poles.


Or they wear gloves when it isn't even cold. "I keep them on even if they don't match my outfit," said one woman.

To find out how many bacteria lurk in the subway, the manager of microbiology at Bristol-Myers took swabs of everything: turnstiles, subway tokens, even those menacing poles.

They even swabbed the palms of this dedicated reporter's hands, before and after using their new anti-bacterial hand lotion, one of many new germ-killers to hit the market recently.

But infectious disease specialist Dr. Laura Fisher says fear of germs is being blown out of proportion.

"You'd have to lick a subway pole to cause a problem, or have a big gaping wound on your hand," she said.

Nothing to sneeze at

Viruses, on the other hand, are easier than bacteria to transmit. But you would still have to touch a pole that had just been sneezed on -- and then touch your own mouth or nose in quick succession to catch a disease. And. anyway, anti-bacterial products don't kill viruses.

The general consensus is that public phones are far nastier than subway poles. "They smell! Like you get close and, like, ughhhh!" said one subway rider.

But back to the subway itself. The shocking part of this story is the lab results. The swabs taken from the subway's turnstiles showed significant bacteria growth, even though people rarely touch them with their hands

On the other hand, Bristol-Myers' lab found there was "very low growth on the poles and coin slots." So do the ads add up?

Well, from the Bristol-Myers point of view, they do if the sales do.


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