Over the pass 10 years there have been a number of research studies to determine whether subway air quality posed a serious health risk for subway track workers and station agents. Despite the millions of dollars spent on research there hasn't emerge a definitive study linking subway air quality with increased health risk to subway workers or commuters. Of specific concern was the high levels of iron particulates found in subway air and other constituent metals, including elevated levels of manganese and chromium. Commenting on the potential health risks associated with these airborne metals, lead researcher Dr. Steven N. Chillrud emphasized that no negative health effects had been conclusively linked to the steel dust present in the subway system. But he noted that high exposure to airborne metals had been linked to cancer and respiratory, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.
No cause for concern?
The fact that these published studies could not establish a direct link between subway air quality and any serious health risks simply tells me that they were all looking in the wrong direction at the time of the accident. It is an establish fact that elevated levels of chromium and manganese pose serious health risks when airborne because they bypass the body's natural defenses when inhaled. This is especially true of welders who developed neurological disorders and loss of motor skills due to exposure to welding fumes containing manganese. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that neurological and neurobehavioral deficits may occur when workers are exposed to low levels of manganese (<0.2 mg/m3) in welding fumes. These effects include changes in mood and short-term memory, altered reaction time, and reduced hand-eye coordination. When you consider the fact that welders experienced deficits in health when exposed to low levels of manganese measuring 0.08901 ppm, how does that compare with the levels of exposure that station agents and commuters encounter each day...for years.
To illustrate the point consider the following illustration. At your annual physical your doctor tells you that you have elevated levels of manganese in your blood. He says that he is not overly concerned because there is no published medical research on elevated levels of manganese in the blood and associated health risks. In fact, the only published data he could find dealt with welders. Since you are not a welder he says, you shouldn't have anything to worry about. How is that for outside the box thinking? This is just one example of why I manage my own health care.
Increased risk to station agents
Station agents and cleaners, particularly those who work underground, are at greater health risk than commuters because of their longer exposure to pollutants in the air; sometimes up to 16 hours in a day. In addition to the poor air quality in the subway system, station agents share the same air space with coworkers who may be infected with influenza, tuberculosis or other contagious airborne respiratory diseases. While the air conditioning in the station booth do provide a measure of air quality control, they are not always maintained as frequency as they should to help clean the air. All these factors may help to explain the MTA's high rate of employee absenteeism and associated overtime charges due to workers who call in sick. In a report issued by the New York State Comptroller in 2009, nearly $600 million of the MTA’s reported annual payroll costs is for employee overtime, and these overtime costs have been increasing steadily. As stated in the report, “Many of the employees working overtime are replacing absent workers, especially workers who have called in sick. Thus, these employees are working both their own regular shifts (at straight time) and other employees’ regular shifts (on overtime).” These rising budget costs could be reduced, and maybe delay a future fare hike, if station clerks and cleaners could be protected from the potential health risks associated with poor subway air quality.
A simple solution in sight
For the past six months an MTA station agent was asked to test the air quality claims of Vollara's FreshAir Focus in his booth underground. Within days he reported feeling less fatigued at the end of each shift and he also wasn’t coughing up black debris anymore. While this was exciting news we decided to conduct a test to provide more conclusive evidence of the unit’s air quality benefits.
We used two petri dishes with growth media for the test. One was exposed to the air inside the subway station for one hour and the other dish to the air inside the station agent’s booth; the air conditioning unit was turned off. A FreshAir Focus unit was used in the booth during the one-hour test period. Both dishes were sealed in air-tight zip lock bags and place in a warm, dark place to incubate for 48 hours.
The dish exposed to the subway air outside the booth produce active mold and other microbial growth a after 48 hours of incubation (see slide show) . The other dish produced no microbial growth at all thus demonstrating the effectiveness of FreshAir Focus ionization technology in reducing airborne pollutants inside the station agent’s booth.
Subway station agents can greatly minimize their exposure to airborne pollutants with FreshAir Focus. This plug-in unit only consumes 7-watts and will cover up to a 50 square foot area. This same technology is also available as a portable battery-powered device called the FreshAir Buddy. This compact iPod-size unit can be worn around your neck or clipped on your collar to provide the same personal air-quality protection enjoyed with the FreshAir Focus. It may be the ideal travel companion for subway straphangers, station personnel or for business trips. For more information on the FreshAir Focus or the FreshAir Buddy visit: www.gwiny.org/subway.php.