Major review of subway systems suggests potential for significant health and safety hazards

02/24/05

Multiple hazards present; study cites threat of terrorism, transmission of infectious diseases, and new data on noise levels

New York, February 24, 2005 Although information on subway safety is generally very limited, a new paper by safety experts at the Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health provides the first comprehensive look at health and safety hazards that might affect both riders and subway workers. The report, published in the Journal of Urban Health in a special issue on mass transit, indicates that while subways in general, and the New York City subway system in particular, are relatively safe, especially in comparison to automobile use, a number of concerns remain.

According to lead author, Robyn Gershon, DrPH, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School, "Data on subway safety issues are limited, and much more research in this area is warranted given that millions of people are potentially at risk- in New York City alone, the weekday ridership is over 7 million passengers. "While this comprehensive review of the data gives us the first big picture into the health of our transportation system, without further appropriate risk assessment studies, we cannot adequately determine the factors and health effects of potential hazards," and "most importantly, the steps that are needed to reduce this risk," Dr. Gershon cautions.

For a number of reasons, subway systems are vulnerable to a range of health and safety hazards, both naturally occurring as well as man-made," states Dr. Gershon. The Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia's Mailman School, Dr. Irwin Redlener, says he is concerned because "subways have been the target of terrorist attacks, such as the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway systems, and they remain a potential target." He thinks that subways make a likely target, because, as he states, "not only would large numbers of people be victimized by such an attack, but the urban community itself would be adversely affected." The urban infrastructure, including the subways, remains one of the top priorities of the Department of Homeland Security, Dr. Redlener points out.

Dr. Gershon's paper considers a number of different potential health hazards as they relate to subways, including the threat of transmission of infectious diseases, either through close person-to-person spread, or indirectly, through contact with contaminated seats or clothing. Importantly, airborne spread of many pathogens is possible, although undocumented in the subway system, mainly because studies have not been conducted that specifically explore this. According to Dr. Gershon, "the risk of infectious disease transmission could be minimized through adequate maintenance of ventilation systems, frequent sanitation, and periodic disinfection of subway surfaces. At the individual rider level- prevention may be as simple as hand washing after riding the subways," she states.

Another hazard examined in this paper was subway noise. Not surprisingly, subways are noisy environments, given the many noise producing processes that are common in rail transit and the amplification provided by the enclosed space of the underground subway. Dr. Gershon's paper reviews noise level data her team recently collected which indicate that there is a potential for concern. They found that current levels are as high as they were in the 1970s, and in some cases, the levels were higher than recommended by health experts. She notes, "While many riders try and deal with the noise by putting their fingers into their ears, this unfortunately offers little protection, and ear plugs would be only slightly better."

Subways also present a special concern with respect to crime, although public perceptions about crime are often out of line with actual crime rates, which generally have been dropping. Observes Dr. Gershon, "There are some crimes, unique to subways, such as pushing or attempted pushing onto subway tracks, that loom large in some riders mind." In fact, one study showed that over 75% of randomly selected New York City passengers were afraid of being pushed onto the tracks, despite the fact that this type of violent event is fortunately very rare for the millions of subway riders. The most frightening aspect of this type of crime, when it does occur, is its utter randomness. In one study, 100% of the victims were complete strangers to the perpetrators. While the randomness and suddenness of this type of crime make prevention a challenge, Dr. Gershon points out that, as shown by the New York City Transit Police, "proactive transit policing can reduce the likelihood of all types of crime, from pick pocketing to subway pushing."

The paper examines other safety hazards as well, including injuries, air pollution and vibration.

Findings of the report, "Health and Safety Hazards Associated with Subways," by Dr. Gershon will appear in the March Journal of Urban Health, a publication of the New York Academy of Medicine.

Also in the March issue, Steven Chillrud, PhD, a scientist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Paul Brandt-Rauf, MD, PhD, chair of the Mailman School Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and others published a paper called Steel Dust in the New York City Subway System as a Source of Manganese, Chromium, and Iron Exposures for Transit Workers. This paper discusses an ongoing pilot study designed to show whether transit workers' bodies harbor elevated levels of these metals, and whether this might translate into a health concern for the workers.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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