Advocates for greater health protections for transit workers got fresh ammunition to press their case when an air-quality study performed by New York University found that the air below ground had concentrations of hazardous metals and organic particles that were up to seven times greater than outdoor samples.

Researchers from NYU's Grossman School of Medicine took air samples from 71 subway stations during rush hours in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. prior to the pandemic. The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Factor in Deadly Diseases

"Further analysis of air samples showed that iron and organic carbon, a chemical produced by the incomplete breakdown of fossil fuels or from decaying plants and animals, composed three quarters of the pollutants found in the underground air samples for all measured subway stations," according to the press release accompanying the report. "Although iron is largely nontoxic, some forms of organic carbon have been linked to increased risk of asthma, lung cancer and heart disease."

subway wall

REASON TO FEAR THE AIR DOWN THERE: At the MTA Penn Station Subway plaza janitor pails are pressed into service to capture water coming through the ceiling amidst renovation work. Researchers have flagged construction as a potential contributor to toxic particulates in the subway.

The study indicated that commuters in New Jersey and New York breathed in the highest levels of pollution, with the Port Authority's Christopher Street Station in Greenwich Village registering the worst: "to 77 times the typical concentration of potentially dangerous particles in outdoor, aboveground city air...comparable to sooty contamination from forest fires and building demolition."

"Our findings add to evidence that subways expose millions of commuters and transit employees to air pollutants at levels known to pose serious health risks over time," according to lead author David Luglio, a researcher at the Grossman School.

"Commuters are only exposed for a short period of time, whereas workers are exposed several hours a day, day after day," Dr. Terry Gordon, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone, said during a phone interview. "I think masks would help, but I don't know how much that is a part of American culture, although COVID might have changed that."

Affects Heart, Lungs

He continued, "We know from hundreds and hundreds of epidemiological studies that exposure to these particles is linked to an increased incidence of cardiovascular and respiratory effects. We know there is a linkage. What we want to know is how toxic are the particles."

NYU Langone researchers took over 300 air samples and their data includes more than 50 hours of sampling at about 70 subway stops.

The Port Authority Trans-Hudson system had the highest airborne particle concentration at 392 micrograms per cubic meter, followed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at 251 micrograms per cubic meter. "Washington had the next highest levels at 145 micrograms per cubic meter, followed by Boston at 140 micrograms per cubic meter," stated the researchers' press release. "Philadelphia was comparatively the cleanest system at 39 micrograms per cubic meter.

In contrast, above-ground air concentrations for all of the surveyed cities averaged just 16 micrograms per cubic meter.

The health risks associated with a chronic occupational exposure to subway air has been a concern to transit unions well before nearly 100 members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 died from exposure to the coronavirus. The pandemic has led to heightened scrutiny of the MTA's ventilation systems.

'Greater Risk for Us'

"The findings of the NYU study are very concerning," said Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100. "If the air is potentially injurious to commuters, then the potential for harm to subway workers would be much greater. We have been working for many years to protect workers and limit their exposure to harmful substances like diesel fumes and other substances. We will be meeting with the NYU researchers to discuss their findings and possible next steps."

In a statement, MTA spokesman Tim Minton said the agency had "conducted previous air-quality testing on subway trains operating in our system and found no health risks," adding that the agency would "thoroughly" review the NYU Langone stidy.

"The subways are part of New York City, which is designated by [the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] as an area that includes elevated levels of the same size particulates identified in the NYU study," he added. "Notably, study researchers sampled the equivalent of 0.6% of the system—just three of 472 stations and four trains from close to 1,000 that move through NYC Transit every day. The MTA is currently piloting technology solutions, as a result of pandemic-related innovation, that will further enhance filtration in subway cars."

The union leadership for the PATH workforce said it had read the report but declined comment.

"We're obviously concerned," said PA Executive Director Rick Cotton. "We are totally committed to protecting the health and safety of our workers, we are totally committed to protecting the health and safety of PATH riders...and if necessary, develop an appropriate action plan to address it."

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