The air quality of NYC Subway workers

Supposedly, the air quality in subway stations are safe for commuters, but what about the long-time experienced, 8-hour NYC subway workers?

A study found that subway air had levels of air-borne metals 100 times higher than above ground. It was lowest in subway cars, where dust gets trapped by air-conditioning filters, and highest in stations, where trains brake as they reach the platform. However, the possible health effects of prolonged exposure by workers who have close daily contact with subway rails, wheels and equipment have not been explored.

“There’s almost nothing published about subway safety,” said Dr. Gershon, an associate professor at the Joseph A. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia. “It’s like a missing target.

“I’m not aware of any occupational studies done in this group of workers, which have been carried out over the time period needed to confirm [health effects],” Dr. Frank Kelly, an environmental health professor says.

A $1 million proposal in 2010, to look at medical insurance claims being made by workers of the MTA, according to their job titles and experience to look for patterns in their illnesses was denied by the MTA. Stating they were worried about worker confidentiality with the release of these medical claims data.

Researcher Steven Chillrud did a small study (limited in scope) with only 40 subway workers who were asked to carry a portable, battery-powered pumps in an under-the-arm harness to sample the air, previously a big air-pump backpack were used in air quality studies like this one. Stationary filters and particle counters also were placed at various locations in the subway system. The workers also were asked to answer questions about their health and work activities. He did not test on women subway workers or for long-term effects of low exposure to these metals.

Enter the Kanari.

Kanari was a collaborative effort between my fellow classmate Nga and I. We made the wearable air quality device in Fundamentals of Physical Computing. Kanari is a light-weight device that alerts its user of the level of air pollution (cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, etc.) being emitted in the environment around them. With three ranges, in “normal” air quality condition the color lights blue, at mid-range pollutants in the air the device lights red, and at high air pollution levels the device lights red and the alarm beeps to alert the user.

By putting the Kanari project into the NYC subway system, it is like a full circle, from a real “canary in a coal mine” to a more modern version for subway workers. My presentation can be found here.


Coal mine worker to NYC subway worker

Coal mine to underground NYC subway system

Coal mine to underground NYC subway system


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