The union representing subway workers with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is calling for better employee protection, including respiratory masks, following the release of a Health Canada (HC) study claiming poor air quality in the underground tunnels.
Published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology on April 25, “Metro Commuter Exposures to Particulate Air Pollution and PM2.5-Associated Elements in Three Canadian Cities: The Urban Transportation Exposure Study” concluded that air in the TTC subway system contains extremely high levels of a particulate matter called PM2.5. This particulate includes high quantities of iron and may come from friction between train wheels and the subway track, the report stated.
“There have been numerous studies of air quality in subway systems internationally, including those in London, New York and Stockholm,” read an e-mailed response from HC. “The results from Toronto are consistent with levels observed elsewhere.”
The study research was conducted in 2010 and 2011, in collaboration with the University of Toronto and McGill University.
On April 27, two TTC employees were sent home after refusing to work in the subway tunnels without wearing respiratory masks, according to Kevin Morton, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113.
“So the guy wears a mask, and then he’s criticized and threatened and fired, and I got all his money back,” said Morton about one of the workers. “He was suspended without pay, but I took care of that.”
Morton called the study revelations “22 years out of date,” elaborating that the union had known that the air was polluted since the TTC had conducted an air-quality test in 1995.
“The report only confirmed what we believed,” he said. “We have asked for air-quality tests, and they’ve been Mickey Mouse tests done by the TTC, rather than all-out tests for base metals, carbon monoxide or diesel.”
Morton added that the TTC had received “preliminary findings” about the study results last November. “They never told us until I read it on the front page of the Toronto Star,” he said.
An April 27 news release from the TTC stated that the Ontario Ministry of Labour (MOL) had ruled the air in the subway “not likely to endanger” employees or riders and that respiratory protection was not required.
“It’s most regrettable that a comparison to the air quality on the TTC was, in certain media articles, made to that of Beijing, one of the planet’s most polluted cities,” TTC CEO Andy Byford said in a media statement. “Doing so, frankly, has caused harm to the TTC’s reputation and unnecessary alarm for some TTC employees.
“The TTC had already committed to its own air-quality assessment and will begin that study later this year.”
But Morton claimed that the MOL had based its decision solely on the test results from 1995. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.
“We’ve got people who’ve been diagnosed and died with more lung diseases and cancers than proportional,” he said about certain welding and blacksmithing workers. “A lot of our employees down there in the maintenance and transportation are being brought in for respiratory problems.”
Morton said that the TTC had recently mandated that all subway officers would have to wear safety shoes, safety glasses and earplugs. “But nothing for their nose or their mouth. Isn’t that ridiculous?” he said. “They said particulates get in your eyes. Well, particulates get into your eyes, they get into your nose, they get into your mouth.
“If they can unilaterally mandate glasses, why are they afraid of the mask? Because it’s the public’s perception that somehow, it’s dangerous or toxic, or bad for my health.”
Local 113 is planning to meet with TTC management on May 3, to discuss the possibility of hiring an air-quality expert to conduct a proper evaluation. “If we can mutually agree on a third party, that’s fine,” said Morton. “But if they say no, they’ve chosen one, we will probably go ahead and hire our own, with or without their support.”
HC stated that it was using the report to advise on strategies to improve air quality in underground transit.
“The objective of this study was not to calculate health impacts, but rather to better understand exposure for commuters within time frames specific to commuting peak hours,” wrote HC. “Presently, Health Canada is working with the Toronto Transit Commission to study the benefits of past, present and possible future air-quality solutions.”
The TTC stated that it had taken measures to mitigate air pollution since 2011, such as refurbishing the air conditioning, removing thick debris buildup from tunnel walls and buying a new vacuum car with high-quality air filtration.