The air in New York’s subway programs is closely polluted, a research by NYU reveals

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Subway drivers and transit workers in major cities are exposed to air pollution, which could increase the risk of heart and lung problems, according to a new study from New York University.

Researchers at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine said air quality measurements, particularly the PATH rail system connecting New York and New Jersey to the New York City subway system, raise serious health concerns and warrant further investigation.

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at the air quality of transit systems in the northeast, including the Boston, Philadelphia and Washington subways, during morning and evening rush hours. It turned out that the air quality was lowest on platforms and improved somewhat on air-conditioned trains.

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Dr. Terry Gordon, a professor in the school’s environmental medicine department and co-senior study author, said all systems had pollution levels at least several times higher than those recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The two systems in New York were the most polluted.

“The only salvation is that you don’t spend a lot of time in the subway system, whether on the train or on the platform,” said Dr. Gordon.

Many transit workers spend most of their careers in tunnels, at stations and on trains. Richard Clark, a representative for the PATH signal workers union, said he found the study alarming.

Mr Clark said many current and former colleagues have respiratory problems and cancer that they believe are caused by their jobs. He wants the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which operates PATH, to invest more heavily in cleaning tunnels, platforms and other areas where pollutants accumulate.

Port Authority spokesman Ben Branham said Wednesday that the agency would review the study. “We take health and safety issues very seriously in our facilities,” he said.

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Tim Minton, a spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s subway system, said previous air quality checks on their trains had revealed no health risks. “We will, however, carefully review this study as the safety of customers and employees is always our top priority.”

Mr. Minton noted that NYU researchers sampled three of the system’s 472 subway stations and four of nearly 1,000 daily trains. A spokesman for the union that represents most of the metro workers, Transport Workers Union Local 100, did not speak out immediately.

The most polluted stations included Christopher Street Station on the PATH and Second Avenue Station on the F subway line.

NYU researchers believe that many of the pollutants in the subway systems they studied are related to steel dust created by dragging train wheels against rails, carbon dust emanating from part of a train that touches the third rail, and diesel soot emissions from maintenance locomotives.

Steve Chillrud, a research professor at Columbia University who published a landmark study on air quality in New York’s subway system in 2004, said the pollutant levels recorded by NYU researchers were worrying.

Dr. Chillrud noted that NYU research underscored the need for a more detailed investigation, such as an epidemiological study to assess the risk of taking the subway. “I think this is a clear call to assess the risk in further studies, but it’s not a clear call to freak out just yet,” he said.

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The research was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, when the average number of weekday drivers on PATH averaged nearly 300,000 and the average weekday subway driver was 5.5 million.

The number of local transport drivers has decreased across the country. The transit agencies assume that they will recover almost to the level before the pandemic in the next few years.

Dr. Gordon said that fabric face masks, now ubiquitous due to the pandemic, also reduce people’s exposure to poor air quality. If drivers were to wear masks after the pandemic, as do many commuters in Asia, it would be beneficial to people’s health, especially drivers with underlying health conditions.

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