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News / Northwest

Drug smoke wafts through Seattle, Portland transit but not at toxic levels, UW study says

By Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
Published: September 8, 2023, 11:56am

SEATTLE — Airborne fentanyl residues were found in a quarter of Seattle and Portland light-rail transit vehicles tested this spring, while methamphetamine appeared in them all, said a University of Washington study.

However, the amounts were too low to pose a risk to riders or to trigger acute illness or make a transit operator “high,” health officials said.

“In most cases, an exposure would be hundreds to thousands of times lower than what we would expect to cause clinical effects,” said Dr. Rob Hendrickson, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center, in a Thursday press briefing.

The study by the University of Washington Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences department was designed to measure workplace exposure, after scores of transit operators filed safety incident reports about passengers smoking drugs, or even stopped driving because of headaches, dizziness or difficulty breathing.

These included a Feb. 5 incident at Angle Lake Station, where a light-rail operator was taken by ambulance for a medical check after being exposed to fentanyl smoke. Last year, King County Metro Transit employees filed 52 workers’ compensation claims, of which 16 entailed lost work time, based on drug exposure.

The study was conducted over 28 days this spring, as UW researchers collected 78 air-filter samples and 102 surface samples from 19 rail cars and 11 buses, during night shifts.

Just one air sample contained fentanyl exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter, for pharmaceutical worker exposure. And two of 102 surface samples exceeded the Washington State Department of Health decontamination threshold of 15 nanograms per square centimeter.

In the surface samples, 46 percent showed fentanyl and 98 percent methamphetamine, mainly where residues were allowed to accumulate.

“It’s everywhere,” said Cory Rigtrup, vice president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, in an interview. Rigtrup said he issued an immediate bulletin to workers who clean buses and trains, reminding them to wear full personal protective equipment, including gloves, when cleaning air filters or wiping surfaces.

The big unanswered question, Rigtrup said, is the effect of prolonged exposure to whatever chemicals linger in drug vapors. Historically, the effects of many substances, such as the pesticide DDT, took decades to uncover, he said. “It’s unhealthy at any level, right? That’s the answer.” The UW study didn’t extend to urine, mucus or blood sampling of workers.

Union members are reporting a downturn in drug use this summer, at the same time Sound Transit has boosted security, Rigtrup said. “We’re worried about the fall. What happens when the rains come back, and people are smoking in buses?”

Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm, in remarks to a transit-board committee, compared the drug residues to one-thousandth of a grain of sugar. “However, smoke has residue, it has impact. So while it might not have the toxicity that’s associated with the drugs, there is still a very real reaction people have when smoke is blown in their faces, sitting next to it. We take that seriously. It has physical impacts,” she said.

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The 32-page report doesn’t answer why meth turned up more often than fentanyl. Perhaps meth is smoked in greater volumes, or it persists longer in the environment, or people are mixing drugs, said Marissa Baker, a UW assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences who co-led the assessment.

The study team recommended that transit agencies improve their onboard air filters to MERV 13 quality, capturing 85 percent of particles larger than 1 micron; frequently clean bus and train interiors; provide employee training about related health issues and how to handle incidents; and offer mental health services for people stressed by observing drug use, for instance if the employee is recovering from addiction or experienced drug-related family trauma.

Transit’s response

Transit leaders emphasized that drug use on buses and trains reflects a nationwide crisis.

“There is not a community among us who is not grappling with this heartbreaking condition, of addiction faced by too many family members and neighborhoods,” said Timm. In King County alone, 917 people died from overdoses this year through August, 714 involving fentanyl, a health department tracker says.

“The good news is that the outcomes were good. Transit is safe, it was safe before, and it remains safe,” Timm said in reaction to the UW data.

King County Metro Transit has already retrofitted two-thirds of buses with MERV 13 filters as UW suggested. Community Transit, in Snohomish County, will do the same with its Swift bus-rapid transit fleet, and possibly the whole fleet, by the end of September, promised CEO Ric Ilgenfritz. Sound Transit intends to upgrade its railcar filters, but the job requires hardware changes to the ventilation system, and there’s no timeline yet, spokesperson John Gallagher said.

Another side of the coin is security. Sound Transit was dinged in an audit last year for not consistently having a full police patrol, amid a shortage of officers. Timm said there are currently 55 King County Sheriff’s Office deputies employed as transit officers with a budget to hire 90 officers. She said there are 250 private security guards. This spring the transit board approved contracts with four companies and a target of 300 guards late this year.

Timm said she’s seeing anecdotal evidence of less drug use, but didn’t provide verified data Thursday.

In a strategy change, the Sound Transit police unit and Timm decided in May to deploy more uniformed officers in trains and stations, said Marcus Williams, Sound Transit police chief.

Timm said on Thursday that people who smoke drugs are being removed from trains. If they don’t comply with a security guard’s request to leave, transit police are called to take enforcement action, she said.

If someone is passed out but not smoking, a guard or fare ambassador attempts a “wellness check,” Timm said. Medical emergencies, including one death at Northgate Station, have occurred this year.

“It is not illegal to sleep on a vehicle. Sometimes people are tired and sometimes they have used it, and they have a right to ride,” Timm said.

Sound Transit this year is rebuilding its fare ambassador corps, which mainly provides customer service. So far, they’ve checked about 2 percent of riders for ORCA fare cards or tickets, shy of the 10 percent target, staff briefings say. Currently there is no penalty for evasion and some riders decline to cooperate when canvassed.

King County Metro Transit is operating a small pilot project, at Aurora Village and Burien transit centers, to provide behavioral health and other service specialists. Data is still being collected, and Metro is also deploying off-duty drivers as transit ambassadors at stations, general manager Michelle Allison said.

For the average rider, exposure is even lower than the UW measurements suggest, explained Baker, the study co-lead. Transit operators are inside the railcar for several hours per shift, compared to a passenger’s brief ride, she said. Researchers measured certain routes and times where Local 587 expected to find drug use. Baker said she rides transit frequently without special precautions.