Why doesn’t the tube make handpoles out of self-sterilising metals? And what is grippage?

Why don't these kill germs? The interior of an ageing Circle line train in 2010. Image: Maurits90/Wikimedia Commons.

In February 2015, bacteriologists from Cornell University published their results after spending more than a year swabbing New York City’s Subway trains and stations for bacteria. The results sounded icky: not only are there hundreds of different microbial species living throughout NYC’s transit system, on the poles and seats and turnstiles that humans touch every day, but half of them were completely unfamiliar to science. Anthrax and the bubonic plague were among those bacteria which were recognised.

Of course, the fact that New Yorkers aren’t dying off like 14th century Europeans implies that the dirtiness (or, rather, perceived dirtiness) of the subway isn’t a pressing public health issue. The study authors were keen to point out that commuters shouldn’t overreact to the news.

The same will apply to London, both in terms of the microbes living throughout the Underground and in the near-non-existent risk they pose to travellers. Yet as I was sat on one of Transport for London’s new S Stock trains on the Hammersmith & City line last week, fully aware of the first signs of a cold in my nose and my throat, my thoughts drifted to that study.

TfL likes to colour-code its lines so that the interior decor of the trains matches the lines they run on (so orange on the Overground, blue on the Piccadilly, etc.). These new trains are running on the Metropolitan (purple), District (green), Hammersmith & City (pink) and Circle (yellow) lines – yet all are decked out in bright, garish yellow. God knows what’s living on those neon poles and handstraps that keep passengers from falling down.

We know that public transport is a vector for disease transmission, especially when it comes to seasonally-influenced illnesses like the flu. We also know that there are materials which self-sterilise – that is, they’re highly toxic for any single-cell organisms that are unfortunate enough to land on them. This “oligodynamic effect” was first discovered in 1893, and lots of different metals – from silver to aluminium, lead to copper – possess it.

So the question is: why aren’t the hand poles in Underground cars and on buses made of antimicrobial metal?


A Santiago metro station, complete with bacteria-killing handrails. Image: AntiMicrobialCopper.com.

In some parts of the world, the answer is actually “they are”. The subway system in the Chilean capital Santiago, for example, uses antimicrobial brass handrails, which were installed in 2011 as part of a wider healthcare campaign. But this is an exception, not a rule.

Jean-Yves Maillard is a pharmaceutical microbiologist from the Cardiff University who researches the use of antimicrobial materials in hospitals, and specifically the two most promising metals: silver and copper (or alloys of copper, rather). It turns out that these things kill germs best when “humidity is 100 per cent, so they are underwater – and that’s not how these surfaces exist on the metro, or Tube, or buses.”

Instead, to get a better idea of how well they work, he’s tested them when they’re dry (which means between 30 and 40 per cent humidity, which is typical for the UK), and when they have “droplets” (i.e. someone’s sneezed) on them.

The results are still impressive: within 30 minutes of contact with the most effective copper alloys, 99.99 per cent of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria – a bug responsible for everything from skin infections to respiratory diseases, and including the infamous antibiotic-resistant MRSA strain – were exterminated in the droplet test, while the dry test still saw around a 90 per cent reduction.

“When it's very dry – the worst case scenario, a very dry summer and so on, above 20 degrees – you'd get something like 99.99 per cent reductions within 30 minutes,” he said. “If someone sneezes, then after 30 minutes on that surface the bacteria is likely to be killed. I imagine for some viruses it would be the same as well. [But] if you haven't got droplets, then that activity really drops sharply. You'll get at most 90 per cent reductions, but probably less than 90 per cent, within 30 minutes. You'll kill some, but not all.” Silver was less effective in the droplet test, and not effective at all in the dry one.

This might make switching to copper-based antimicrobial subway and bus poles seem like an easy win that TfL missed when ordering its newest trains. But Maillard is keen to stress that there are some important downsides.

It rhymes with "fromage"

Firstly, if a surface is cleaned relatively frequently, then the extra cost from using more expensive materials might be more than those of simply paying for someone to wipe everything down a bit more frequently each day, for the same result. And these surfaces are no substitute for cleaning – Maillard emphasises that antimicrobial surfaces work “in addition” to cleaning, not as a replacement. And, when I contacted TfL, health & safety director Jill Collis made it clear that they clean the network “throughout the day and night” already.

The second reason is appearance. According to Collis, “the handrails in carriages are designed to be easy to see, meet safety standards and be suitable for daily use by millions of customers”. (I also discovered that the internal TfL term for the things that passengers hold onto isn’t “handrails”, but “grippage” – pronounced to rhyme with “fromage”.)

This is an important point – and TfL also said that, in accordance with the Vehicle Accessibility Regulations Act 2010, “any passenger handrail fitted in or to a rail vehicle must … contrast with the parts of the rail vehicle adjacent to that handrail”.

In other words, the bright colours on the Tube are primarily so that the visually-impaired are better able to see them. While the brass handrails of the Santiago subway may look somewhat classy, they also blend into the background in dark, underground spaces.

A third important issue is value for money. The handrails on the Tube are made of aluminium, which has a good ratio of weight to cost to strength; copper and silver, less so. “In hospitals, the debate is all about costs,” Maillard said. “[Surfaces] maybe get cleaned once a day, and with copper surfaces there are indications that at the end of the day the [the microbial burden] will be less than normal metal surfaces. That's the interest in it. But the big question is, is it cost effective?”

Then there’s even a fourth issue, most relevant to silver, which is that it perversely seems to make drug-resistant superbugs more likely. Making subway poles out of solid silver is, clearly, ridiculous, but it’s common for nano-particles of silver to be placed within other material to give it some antimicrobial properties – not as good as copper alloys, of course, but still something.

Maillard points to a January 2015 report from the EU Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (Scenihr) into the possible dangers posed by the use of nano-silver in medical and consumer devices. It found that research is “urgently needed” into the possible toxic effects of long-term exposure to silver in consumer products, and also that the genetic adaptation of bacteria to silver could increase resistance.

“What you will find is that now you have a huge amount of surfaces that contain antimicrobials,” Maillard explained. “Lots of plastics, washing machines, photocopiers, in pens, televisions, television remote controls – most of them contain silver or nano-silver, because they don't affect the colour. The concentration that they use is very low, there are question marks over its efficacy, and questions about whether it's going to promote resistance of those organisms with those products.”

So, put it all together and it doesn’t look good for Tube poles that clean themselves. Copper alloys work best, but would have to be painted to comply with health & safety legislation, defeating the purpose. And, while it’s possible to stick silver particles into the paint as an alternative, it’s not very good, especially when the extra cost is factored in – and that’s without considering make it more likely that truly nasty bacteria can thrive and evolve on public transport.

Best stick to hand sanitising gel. Much easier.

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Here’s how we plant 2 billion more trees in the UK

A tree in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), recently published a report outlining how to reduce the 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions that come from land use by two thirds by 2050. Alongside recommending cutting meat and dairy consumption by 20 per cent, the report calls for the annual creation of up to 50,000 hectares of broadleaf and conifer woodland for the next three decades. This would increase forest cover from 13 per cent to at least 17 per cent – a level not seen in Britain since before the Norman invasion.

Reforestation at that rate would mean creating roughly the area of the city of Leeds every year for the next three decades. At typical stocking densities of 1,500 stems per hectare, the ambition is to establish some 2.25 billion additional trees. Given that the UK, as with most of Europe, is in the grip of ash dieback, a disease likely to prove fatal for many millions of native ash trees, the scale of the challenge is massive.

On a crowded and intensively farmed island like Britain, unlocking a million and a half hectares of land will be no mean feat. But it’s not impossible – and is an unprecedented opportunity not only to tackle the climate crisis but also the biodiversity crisis that is every bit as detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees and farms

One million and a half hectares is just 6 per cent of the mainland UK’s land area. To give some sense of perspective on this, 696,000 hectares of “temporary grassland” were registered in 2019. So if land supply is not the problem, what is? Often it’s cultural inertia. Farmers are firmly rooted to the land and perhaps understandably reluctant to stop producing food and instead become foresters. But the choice need not be so binary.

The intensification of agriculture has caused catastrophic declines in many species throughout the UK by reducing vast wooded areas and thousands of miles of hedgerows to small pockets of vegetation, isolating populations and making them more vulnerable to extinction.

Integrating trees with the farmed landscape delivers multiple benefits for farms and the environment. Reforestation doesn’t have to mean a return to the ecologically and culturally inappropriate single-species blocks of non-native conifers, which were planted en masse in the 1970s and 1980s. Incentivised under tax breaks to secure a domestic timber supply, many of the resulting plantations were located in places difficult or in some cases impossible to actually harvest.

Productive farmland needn’t be converted to woodland. Instead, that 4 per cent of land could be found by scattering trees more widely. After all, more trees on farmland is good for business. They prevent soil erosion and the run-off of pollutants, provide shade and shelter for livestock, a useful source of renewable fuel and year-round forage for pollinating insects.

The first tranche of tree planting could involve new hedgerows full of large trees, preferably with wide headlands of permanently untilled soils, providing further wildlife refuge.

Natural regeneration

Where appropriate, new woody habitats can be created simply by stopping how the land is currently used, such as by removing livestock. This process can be helped by scattering seeds in areas where seed sources are low. But patience is a virtue. If people can learn to tolerate less clipped and manicured landscapes, nature can run its own course.

A focus on deliberate tree planting also raises uncomfortable truths. Most trees are planted with an accompanying stake to keep them upright and a plastic shelter that protects the sapling from grazing damage. All too often, these shelters aren’t retrieved. Left to the elements, they break down into ever smaller pieces, and can be swept into rivers and eventually the ocean, where they threaten marine wildlife. Two billion tree shelters is a lot of plastic.

The main reason for using tree shelters at all is because the deer population in the UK is so high that in many places, it is all but impossible to establish new trees. This also has serious implications for existing woodland, which is prevented from naturally regenerating. In time, these trees will age and die, threatening the loss of the woodland itself. Climate change, pests and pathogens and the lack of a coordinated, centrally supported approach to deer management means the outlook for the UK’s existing treescape is uncertain at best.

An ecologically joined-up solution would be to reintroduce the natural predators of deer, such as lynx, wolves, and bears. Whether rewilding should get that far in the UK is still the subject of debate. Before that, perhaps the focus should be on providing the necessary habitat, rich in native trees.

A positive response would be to implement the balanced recommendations, made almost a decade ago in a government review, of creating more new habitat, improving what’s already there, and finding ways to link it together. Bigger, better, and more connected habitats.

But the UK is losing trees at increasing rates and not just through diseases. The recent removal of Victorian-era street trees in Sheffield and many other towns and cities is another issue to contend with. As the climate warms, increasing urban temperatures will mean cities need shade from street trees more than ever.

Trees aren’t the environmental panacea that the politicians might have people believe – even if they do make for great photo opportunities – but we do need more of them. Efforts to expand tree cover are underway across the world and the UK will benefit from contributing its share. Hitting the right balance – some commercial forestry, lots of new native woodland and millions of scattered trees – will be key to maximising the benefits they bring.

Nick Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Conservation, Nottingham Trent University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.