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BART Seats: Where Bacteria Blossom

 
Testing reveals a BART seat contained fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics

Carrie Nee prefers to stand during her half-hour commute on BART from San Leandro to downtown San Francisco. Although the trains’ blue fabric seats are plush and comfortable, Nee refuses to sit on them.

“I would love to sit down, but it just grosses me out. They’re disgusting,” said Nee, a 26-year-old records clerk.

Riders on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system have long complained about germs in the hard-to-clean cloth seats. As Bob Franklin, the BART board president, acknowledged, “People don’t know what’s in there.”

Now they do.

The Bay Citizen commissioned Darleen Franklin, a supervisor at San Francisco State University’s biology lab, to analyze the bacterial content of a random BART seat. The results may make you want to stand during your trip.

Fecal and skin-borne bacteria resistant to antibiotics were found in a seat on a train headed from Daly City to Dublin/Pleasanton. Further testing on the skin-borne bacteria showed characteristics of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the drug-resistant bacterium that causes potentially lethal infections, although Franklin cautioned that the MRSA findings were preliminary.

High concentrations of at least nine bacteria strains and several types of mold were found on the seat. Even after Franklin cleaned the cushion with an alcohol wipe, potentially harmful bacteria were found growing in the fabric.

John Swartzberg, a clinical professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, played down the threat of infection from harmful bacteria on a BART seat. “I suspect it’s not a very big problem,” Swartzberg said. “That said, if there’s another way to do it, where you can clean it better, then you should do it.”

He said the cloth seats most likely allowed bacteria to flourish because they were more difficult to clean and disinfect.

James Allison, a BART spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that the findings were “not surprising,” considering that 330,000 commuters rode the trains daily. Last year, the BART police received 1,051 complaints of smoking, eating and drinking; 245 complaints of urinating or defecating; and 56 reports of spitting.

Allison encouraged riders to wash their hands and use hand sanitizers available at BART stations.

Hygiene has emerged as a key issue as BART officials determine what kind of seats to install for a new fleet of cars in 2017. In January, system employees were invited to test a variety of seat models at a Hayward warehouse. One employee, Melissa Jordan, filed a report on BART’s website about the trade-offs in selecting the new seats.

“Can I live with some type of seat that’s less cushiony — maybe padded vinyl instead of fabric — if it’s easier to keep clean?” Jordan wrote.

Franklin’s analysis also revealed that Muni, which uses acrylic plastic seats, appears to be more sanitary.

She tested a seat on the No. 28 bus, a route frequented by college students traveling from San Francisco State to Daly City. Two benign bacteria colonies were found. Unlike the BART seat analysis, Franklin’s test of the Muni seat after cleaning it with an alcohol wipe detected no bacteria.

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