HOUSTON (KTRK) --Following a tip to abc13's Investigative Unit, cleanliness tests reveal some seats on light rail trains were dirtier than an average toilet seat; but showed lower levels of microbes than some items you come routinely come in contact with. Over the course of several weeks, an abc13 producer tested Metro seats at all hours of the day and on all of Metro's light rail lines.
Using a protein detection test, the average Metro train seats averaged 140 units, an average of several toilet seats in public and private places were just 96.
The tests were conducted using a Hygiena bio-luminescence detector which picks up the level of Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. ATP is a protein found in all living cells. ATP in and of itself is not a harmful substance, but its presence on a surface indicates that harmful microbes could grow as well. Similar tests are routinely used in hospitals and cruise ships to test cleanliness regimes. abc13 used it to test what is left behind after thousands of transit riders use Houston trains for their morning commute.
"The higher level of ATP contamination, the higher the chance of microbial contamination," Theresa Koehler, the chair of the UT Health Microbiology department told abc13.
It's no guarantee a healthy rider would get sick from the contamination. Koehler suggests, "Our immune systems are pretty good at countering, defending us against these harmful microbes."
For the sake of comparison, abc13 also tested common items you may come in contact with. A recently cleaned cutting board measured 19 on our test device, cell phones which routinely rub against hands and faces picking up live cells ranged from 362 to 818 - a higher level than most seats. The difference between the phone and the seat - you likely know who has used your cell phone to deposit microbes on it. A Houston Public Library book chosen at random from a lobby area table registered 153 - about in line with the average Metro seat.
The tests reveal distinct differences on Metro lines. The Red Line, which runs from north of downtown to the Texas Medical Center and further south, was the cleanest. Tests suggested an ATP level of 46. The Green Line out to the East End measured an average of 255. Metro's purple line which runs from downtown Houston towards TSU & the University of Houston averaged a 75.
Metro suggests there is no difference in how any of the lines are cleaned. Metro's Chief Operating Officer Andy Skabowski tells abc13, "We clean every single car, every single night in and out." Skabowski says the vinyl-coated seats do not soak up liquid, are cleaned every night and once a month are coated with a cleaning agent to repel germs.
While seats inside may get daily attention, our tests on areas outside the train were more concerning. Seats at Metro rail stations averaged at least 10 times more ATP than our toilet seat average. The worst was 6620.
The buttons on ticket vending machines were nearly as dirty. Much like an ATM, the buttons are in near constant contact with riders hands and tests show riders leave something behind as they leave with their tickets. Our meter revealed an average of 1869 for the machines. By comparison, the microwave keypad in the abc13 newsroom was 247.
Those results prompted Metro's Skabowski to take a second look at the agency's ticket machine procedures. "It warrants a look at what we can do differently."
UT's Koehler warned, "If you touch that surface and then touch your mouth or eyes or have a cut, then there is a reason to have some concern." She suggests post-ride handwashing would protect most riders. She urged some caution around the ticket machines for those who are already sick or immune compromised.