What are you breathing on the subway?

A new study of air quality in MTA stations proves that it’s a microbe’s world—we’re just living in it.


Bacteria Photograph: HansN.

Ladies and gentlemen—we proudly present the ickiest thing you will read this week: “Every time you step down, you pressurize the air that’s in your shoe. You stomp down, you squirt out a little warm air, carrying foot microbiology.”

That’s Dr. Norman R. Pace, a microbiologist from University of Colorado Boulder, as quoted in a New York Times article about just what exactly we’re breathing when we ride the subway. The good doctor and his colleagues collected air samples from seven MTA stations in Manhattan in a study to determine if there was anything potentially dangerous in all that commuter air.

The results? In addition to the aforementioned foot-germ geysers (which are officially called—shudder—“convective plumes”), the researchers found about one billion (!) bacteria per two cubic meters of air.

Take a breather before you freak out and swear off public transportation forever: That’s pretty much on par with outdoor air quality. And there were no dangerous pathogens in the air, just the regular ol’ species of microbes that live on human skin, plus some elevated levels of fungus due to high volumes of rotten wood in the subway system.

Never mind, we’re still grossed out. What was that about biking to work?