The NYC subway system is the most polluted in the Northeast

One station had air as bad as sooty contamination from a forest fire.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver
Editor, Time Out New York
NYC subway
Photograph: Shutterstock

We've all wondered what we're breathing in while waiting for our subway train to arrive. Well, now we have some (not so great) answers.

NYU Langone researchers published a report last week stating that the New York region’s subway system is the worst for air pollution in the Northeast—from D.C. to Boston. Out of 300 air samples from 71 stations taken in the morning and evening rush hours in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC before the pandemic hit, New York's subway system had the most severe levels of contamination.

In 13 of New York's underground stations tested, there were higher concentrations of hazardous metals and organic particles, between 2 and 7 times more than outdoor air samples. In fact, inside the Christopher Street Station's platform for the PATH line, the air was 77 times the typical concentration of potentially dangerous particles in the outdoor city air. That's as bad as sooty contamination from forest fires and building demolition, the study says. The 2nd Avenue on the F line in New York City also had some of the highest readings.

But of all the systems in NYC, PATH train platforms had the highest airborne particle concentration at 392 micrograms per cubic meter (followed by the MTA's at 251 micrograms per cubic meter). Outdoor air averaged just 16 micrograms per cubic meter.

This is bad because the Environmental Protection Agency advises that you shouldn't be exposed to concentrations of more than 35 micrograms per cubic meter on a daily basis, otherwise there could be serious health hazards. Iron and organic carbon (which you usually get from the breakdown of fossil fuels or from decaying plants and animals) made up a majority of the pollutants found. Some forms of organic carbon have been linked to an increased risk of asthmalung cancer and heart disease, the study authors say.

"As riders of one of the busiest, and apparently dirtiest, metro systems in the country, New Yorkers, in particular, should be concerned about the toxins they are inhaling as they wait for trains to arrive," said co-senior study author Dr. Terry Gordon, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone. 

During a board meeting of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey last week, Executive Director Rick Cotton said the study was concerning, according to Gothamist.

"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 we will dig into this, come to conclusions, and if necessary develop an appropriate action plan to address it," he said.

The MTA said that it would review the study’s findings, but previous air quality tests found no health risks due to air pollutants, Gothamist reported.

So what should straphangers do in the meantime? Wear a mask. Terry Gordon, an environmental medicine professor at NYU Langone and senior author of the study, told Gothamist that wearing a mask will negate health impacts from the poor air quality.

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