Can You Prevent Picking Up Germs on the Subway?


Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Q. I take mass transit every day. Would wearing a glove (or holding something) to create a barrier between me and the stainless steel I grab onto every day be effective at reducing the potential for picking up germs?

A. Yes, using some kind of barrier to avoid getting germs on your hands will help prevent germ transmission, researchers say. But it’s not clear that such protection will really make much difference.

Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, would like someone to invent what he’s dubbed the “subway condom” — something you could slip over your hand to protect against germs. Dr. Lipkin, who has researched the germs in New York City, always uses a glove or other physical barrier when he grasps transit poles.

“There are all sorts of bacteria and viruses that sit on surfaces,” he said. He notes that outdoor surfaces, like mailbox handles, are sterilized by the sun’s UV rays, but there is no such natural protection deep underground.

Short of a subway condom, Dr. Lipkin suggests that people wash their hands as soon as possible after touching such public surfaces, and keep their hands away from their eyes or mouth in the meantime. He said he’s also resorted to wrapping his elbow around poles, instead of his hands, because he’s less likely to infect himself from his elbow.

Curtis Huttenhower, a computational biologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agrees with Dr. Lipkin’s advice but doesn’t worry much himself about picking up germs from public surfaces. In his own research on the Boston T system, Dr. Huttenhower said he found the kinds of germs that are typically found in any communal environment, like an office.

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