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Hygiene in Public Transport: The Need of the Hour


Public spaces with large footfalls can become breeding grounds for epidemics.


Filed under
Cleaning Services
March 19, 2019
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Hygiene in Public Transport: The Need of the Hour
Public spaces with large footfalls can become breeding grounds for epidemics. Sounds alarmist? We may have a built-in resistance to certain bacteria, but the unrelenting assault of micro-organisms, pathogens, manmade pollutants and contaminants -evidenced by a 1-in-5 allergy sufferer in modern cities - indicates fortress homosapiens is being breached at will. 
Air-borne viruses are invisible and can be life-threatening for the young and elderly and those with weakened immune systems. The spread of Norovirus from a sneeze or cough covers an incredible contact distance. Another insidious common enemy is however much closer to hand…
The human hand is in fact the perfect carrier and transmitter of bacteria. Every surface it touches and re-touches without constant sanitation in-between, makes it the perfect host to pass infection. Consider this dynamic within a mass transport system – a metro, an airport, a shopping mall.The cross-contamination potential is staggeringly in favour of a high bacteria transmission hit rate.
Sure, we can wash our hands with sanitizing gel or make ourselves as germ-free as possible. We are only as good as our last cleanse and the last germ-riddled surface we touch. Video illustrations using an ultra-violet torch from supposedly clean, scrubbed hands going about their business, revealed surfaces with micro-organisms trailing from washroom faucets and sinks to hand dryers to washroom doors and beyond.

Hygiene in public spaces

Escalators and travelators for pedestrian conveyance are present in every modern city around the world. The transport infrastructure connecting metros and airports for work and pleasure, visits to shopping malls, department stores, convention centers, arenas, stadiums, hotels, hospitals, public and commercial buildings all have one thing in common. With this dependency is a hygiene safety requirement vital for the health of the many users. Observations on passenger use of escalators reveal a level of manual contact with the handrail approaching 100 per cent. The closest hand instinctively reaches for it at the point of taking the first step onto the moving escalator. Many passengers maintain hand contact throughout the escalator ride, encouraged by instructions to hold onto it for safety. And this is how it should be. Unfortunately, many common diseases including norovirus, flu and new antibiotic-resistant pathogens may also be spread by such hand contact, impacting those whose immune system is weakened or more susceptible. Rather than stop holding the handrail - not a safe option, I recommend effectively sanitizing the handrail.

I met with Professor Paul Matewele, London Metropolitan University (research laboratory), who had conducted a revealing piece of research on London’s Transportation network in spring 2016, carried out by several of his PhD students and compiled by Stavely Head. For this research, 80 swabs were taken from the handrails, seats, doors and handles of London’s train carriages, buses and taxis. The microorganisms were then grown in 20 different media attached in agars, then Gram stained, to identify type of bacteria and subjected to antibiotic and disinfectant tests.

What was found was a little disturbing to say the least. The non-reaction to the published findings even more so 121 different bacteria, including human faeces and mold strains were found on public transport – including nine bacteria species associated with antibioticresistant superbugs. Professor Matewele’s research uncovered an unprecedented level of dangerous bacteria, including traces of superbugs that “antibiotics cannot fight and can be extremely harmful.”Staphylococcus Aureus (the bacteria responsible for toxic shock syndrome), E.coli and alarmingly, Klebsiella Pneumoniae and Serratia were found. The latter two strains resistant to antibiotics have caused blood, chest and urine infections and even fatalities.

It is estimated that 1.34 billion use the London underground, and 2.29 billion people use London buses each year. Closer to home, more than 103 million people used Dubai Metro in the first half of 2018, and the numbers are growing with increased tourism and Expo 2020 on its way. With so many visitors from across the world, the germ traces within transportation systems are rich with disturbing variety. Existing methods of decontamination using detergents or similar chemicals with a wiping operation do not fully disinfect the handrails or remove the bacteria being constantly added, ironically by hand use. Cleaning practices vary due to cost or lack of perceived need involving as little as occasional cleaning or none until the handrails are replaced or cleaned during maintenance. Infections transmitted by a lack of effective decontamination place a significant financial burden on health services globally. Not to mention the loss of productivity and costs associated with perennial worker ‘influenza’ sick leave.

The way out

Evidently, there is a need for an effective system of disinfecting handrails. I advocate the instant kill ‘neutralizing’ option proffered by UV. Ozone is a fantastic sanitizing agent in many situations and environmental applications, (laundry, swimming pools, noxious odor-management) and 3,000 times more effective than chlorine. But in this instance, with handrails, it would require ozone-destruct mechanisms to ensure removal from high visitor areas as a shopping mall or metro escalators. UV is a far-better option. Easy to install and low maintenance. The handrail surface – the transmitted surface of ‘carrier-to-carrier’ each time it is used (potentially) can be sanitized by easy-engineered contact within the reach of the UV light-wave emitting bulbs. These encased bulbs can be fitted unobtrusively, away from the passenger/ commuter’s nearest point of contact with the handrail, on entering the escalator. I am in discussions with a number oforganisations to trial this idea with demonstrable efficacy and am confident that it can make a direct improvement to a diminished-bacteria transmitting environment. In the meantime – please do sanitize your hands, properly and frequently.

Source: Wired & London Metropolitan University

About the author Paul J. Markevicius has completed his MSc, MIS and works as an Environmental Sanitation Consultant with Verteco. His expertise lies in IAQ sanitation, water energy/ efficiency using IoT integration.