For residents of our country’s capital, the news of a fire in the city’s rapid transit system – the Washington Metro – is not surprising. It catches fire and smokes quite regularly. Last year there were reports of more than four fires per week at some points (although there is some dispute over that percentage). There’s even the handy site, IsMetroOnFire.com, to check the current blaze status.
But despite being common, residents may be surprised to discover a potential contributor to the system-wide hissing: their own hair.
A thick, felt-like layer of human hair, skin and other debris has accumulated on the city’s aging rails, according to a safety specialist from the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). In particular, hair has accumulated on insulators that support the transit system’s electrified third rails, which carry cables carrying 750 volts of electricity to power the trains. The hair coating creates a real threat of electrical sparks and fire.
“I was stunned” at the amount of hair on the subway, ATU specialist Brian Sherlock told a local NBC news station. “The amount of debris is just too vulgar to contemplate.”
Arc flashes and smoking insulators are a problem that has haunted Metro for years. In 2015, a sparking insulator was linked to a smoking incident that killed one passenger and sickened more than 80 others from thick smog.
“Many of the problems with the insulators are actually fibers and hairs that literally come off people and clothes and get sucked up,” Paul Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, told NBC News in the tunnels.
As coarse as it is, the collection of horsemen’s hair may not be too surprising. In 2016, the system accounted for 97 million journeys. One healthy person loses between 10 and 200 hairs per day. But people with health problems or hair loss can lose much more. Stress – a common problem around DC – can also cause the head loss.
In addition to hair, riders also shed dead skin cells as they commute on the tracks. A healthy person loses about a thousand skin cells per square centimeter of skin every hour. That amounts to about 500 million cells per day. And each of us sheds our entire outer layer of skin every two to four weeks.
Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told NBC that Metro is working to boost job cleaning given the hairy situation.