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News / Health / Health Wire

Seattle buses, trains to get detectors to study how fentanyl smoke moves

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: March 28, 2023, 7:34am

SEATTLE — A few buses and light-rail trains in King County are being outfitted with fentanyl detectors, in a research program to determine how drug smoke circulates toward transit drivers.

The research began Monday and is being conducted by the University of Washington Department of Environmental & Health Sciences. Professor Marissa Baker, the study leader, called it a first-of-its-kind examination of narcotics fumes within transit vehicles, though similar research has been undertaken for medical personnel.

“To me, the goal is to better understand drugs that are being smoked on the buses and trains that are moving through the air, where they might deposit and how that might impact the operator’s well-being,” Baker said.

Kenneth Price, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, hopes the study leads to better working conditions. He said Sound Transit called him about the concept 18 months ago.

King County Metro Transit’s RapidRide A Line on International Boulevard South, and the E Line on Aurora Avenue North, plus one train on Sound Transit’s light-rail 1 Line, will be equipped with battery-operated monitoring pumps the size of a handheld radio, and concealed behind wall panels.

Filters within the pumps will be frequently replaced for three weeks, Baker said. Used filters will be chemically analyzed for fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and oxycodone, with a goal to report findings in May.

Surfaces will be wiped and checked for drug residues, said a project description by King County Metro.

As fentanyl use spread in many U.S. cities, dozens of Seattle-area transit operators have complained of illnesses, left work midshift and have been transported for medical examination because of people using the drug nearby.

Price said he is asking transit agencies to post QR codes inside the vehicles that passengers can scan to report drug use. That could document the extent of the problem and get the attention of legislators, he said.

Last year, 52 bus operators filed worker compensation claims related to drug or chemical exposure, and 16 of those included lost work time, Metro reported. Many more instances of drugs and related misbehavior have been logged in customer and security reports.

During the last couple of weeks, Local 587 heard one report from light rail and two from buses of operators getting exposed, Price said. That’s fewer than usual, he said.

After more than two years of minimal security, Sound Transit increased train and station patrols in March. Metro’s guard staff stands at 100, with a goal of 140 by late 2024, said spokesperson Jeff Switzer.

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Community Transit in Snohomish County, along with Everett Transit and Portland Tri-Met, will monitor or participate in the study, Baker said.

Fentanyl users commonly set a pill atop a small sheet of aluminum foil, then flick a lighter beneath, releasing vapor sucked through a straw. The odor resembles a mixture of engine oil and peanut butter.

The Washington Poison Center has said there is “very low risk” fentanyl will enter the bloodstream by secondhand vapor, because the drugs are absorbed by the user. However, transit operators have reported dizziness and breathing irritation, along with stress.

“I say that if it can kill someone sitting in that seat, it can impair someone sitting next to them,” Price said.

Last year fentanyl was detected in 710 deaths in King County, out of a total 1,003 fatal drug and alcohol overdoses.

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