TTC outlines plans to study subway air quality for first time since 1995

The TTC will spend the next year studying the air quality inside the subway system in the wake of an alarming report that found high levels of pollution underground.

Coun. Joe Mihevc says there’s no ‘major worry,’ but transit agency working to improve conditions

The TTC will spend the next year conducting its first major air quality study since 1995. (John Rieti/CBC)

The TTC will spend the next year studying the air quality inside the subway system in the wake of an alarming report that found high levels of pollution underground.

The TTC has played down the concerns raised in a Health Canada report released earlier this spring, noting that Ontario's labour ministry has deemed working conditions in the subway safe, and that the study itself did not draw conclusions about what the pollution — tiny particulate matter often called rail dust — meant for people's health.

CEO Andy Byford called comparisons made between the subway air and Beijing following the report: "regrettable."

"I've been to Beijing, I know which air I would rather breathe," he told reporters Tuesday, after the TTC board quickly voted to forge ahead with plans for the study.

This will be the first comprehensive air quality study since 1995, something Byford admits is "surprising."

"I think you certainly need to keep the data current."

However, Byford says there have been many changes in recent years that should improve the system's air quality, including running new trains and clearing debris and garbage from the subway tunnels. The TTC has also invested in a top-of-the-line subway vacuum complete with a filter system, which should be operating soon, Byford said. 

Coun. Joe Mihevc, who sits on the board, says air quality is not a "major worry," but the TTC does want to respond to customer complaints like "that smell really doesn't feel good."

"It really is an attempt to up the quality of the air in the system," he told CBC Toronto.

Testing will be done "primarily" in underground sections of the subway throughout operating hours, with rush hour getting especially close scrutiny. The TTC's report notes contamination levels may be highest in the morning, as there may be remnants from overnight maintenance work in the air, and there are a lot of trains running during a short period of time.

Toronto Public Health will also examine issue

Third-party consultants will do the collection and analysis.

The study will also track TTC employees, to see what they're being exposed to in the course of their shift.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) will review the study's methodology and get a copy of the final report so it can do an additional health assessment focused on subway commuters.

"We have the right players at the table," Mihevc said.

"We will follow up on the evidence as it presents itself."

The study is expected to cost some $400,000, while TPH's work will cost another $100,000.

In Byford's latest CEO's report, 73.7 per cent of customers reported being satisfied with station cleanliness, short of the transit agency's goal of 75 per cent. However, 93.1 per cent of people were satisfied with the cleanliness of the subway trains. 

The TTC is also acquiring equipment to clean its subway tunnels, Mihevc said, noting some have simply never been cleaned.

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.