A Bacterial Takeover

By: Sarah Liberow  |  October 24, 2019

Science and Technology

By: Sarah Liberow, Staff Writer 

Bacteria. Everyone knows that these single-celled pesky organisms are everywhere. While trillions of bacteria call our bodies their home (and most of them are beneficial), there are some bacteria that can cause deadly diseases if left untreated. Different types of bacteria crop up in all kinds of places — researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College swabbed the NYC subways for roughly a year and a half and were able to develop a pathogen map of the city. They found that while most strains present on the subway are harmless, there are antibiotic-resistant bacteria (bacteria that defeat the antibiotics used to kill them) in 27% of the samples they collected, and even DNA fragments from bacteria such as Anthrax and the species that caused the Bubonic plague. Nevertheless, there isn’t enough of a presence to pose an actual hazard to human health, and most of the bacteria that commute with you daily on the subway are harmless.

Another debilitating bacterial problem is the transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals. Originally, there was a belief that the spread of germs was only facilitated through contact of doctors and nurses with patients and could be carried in bedsheets and medical equipment. Later, research showed that bacteria could also spread through the air, which couldn’t be combated by the use of gloves or good old-fashioned soap. Cleaning the ward could spread the microbes (microscopic organisms) and release them into the air, like when an infected patient coughs or talks. However, the latest threat has come from an unexpected place — washing machines.

A study published in September recounts the case of newborns being repeatedly infected in a pediatric hospital in Germany. Attempts to locate the source of the infection took almost a year. From April 2012 to May 2013, fourteen newborns contracted a type of Klebsiella oxytoca, an infection that can cause an inflammation of the colon. The lengthy time period over which babies in the NICU were getting sick, showed that the infection wasn’t being simply transmitted by hospital staff or visitors. 

Realizing that reservoirs of water, especially in healthcare settings, can harbor colonies of drug-resistant bacteria (that can be spread to patients), the infection was traced to the laundry machine used to launder the newborns’ hats and socks. The strange thing is that it wasn’t the actual machine which was supplying the clothes with a dose of K. oxytoca during its spin cycle — rather the rubber seals surrounding the door held residual water from after the wash and the multi-drug resistant bacteria accumulated there and in the detergent drawer. Ironically, the tools we use to keep our clothes clean spread infection, and only once the washing machines in question were relocated to the attic did the infections stop.

Currently, there is no official statement regarding hazards of using domestic washing machines, although there is thought to improve the designs of the machines in hospitals to avoid contaminated water from accruing and transmitting unwanted surprises to patients. Although harmless bacteria can be found everywhere, the most dangerous can be found in unexpected areas. Just take precautions and know that the next time you’re on the NYC subway (which has been rated America’s most bacteria infested subway system) by holding the pole for balance, you’ve virtually shook hands with about 10,000 other New Yorkers. Happy commuting!

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