Toronto Ontario - The TTC is moving ahead with a $500,000 study of air quality in the subway system, after a highly-publicized Health Canada report released earlier this year found high concentrations of pollutants in the agency's underground lines.
A report that went before the agency's board on Tuesday revealed details of the study, which was originally approved in May and will mark the first time the TTC has tested its subway air since 1995.
Councillor Joe Mihevc, who sits on the board and put forward the original motion to proceed with the research, said the study was necessary even though he doesn't believe underground pollution poses an immediate health threat.
"I think that you want to improve the quality in air systems wherever they are, and of course the TTC, there are hundreds of thousands of people who use it every day, so you want to make sure that that subway is functioning well, from an air quality point of view," he said.
According to the board report, third-party consultants have been tapped to conduct the study over a one-year period.
The researchers will measure pollution levels in the subway system air as well as monitor the exposure of the transit workers who spend the most time underground.
Subway operators, train guards, track patrollers, janitors, transit enforcement officers, and fare collectors are among the positions that have been singled out for monitoring.
Toronto Public Health will carry out a separate assessment to determine the health risks posed to members of the public.
The consultant work is expected to cost $400,000, while the TPH assessment is estimated at $100,000.
The TTC will foot the bill for both.
The TTC board first approved the study weeks after the publication of a Health Canada report in April that determined concentrations of a fine particulate matter called PM2.5 were 10 times greater on the subway system than outdoors.
Researchers linked the substance to the metallic "rail dust" that is generated when a train's wheels rub against the tracks.
That study didn't draw any conclusions about the health impacts of PM2.5 but it received widespread attention, particularly after one of the researchers involved stated publicly that the levels of particulate matter in the TTC were comparable to an average day in smog-choked Beijing.
The media coverage of those comments "caused harm to the TTC's reputation and unnecessary alarm for some TTC employees," according to the board report.
TTC CEO Andy Byford told reporters Tuesday he believed the language used to describe the Health Canada study had distorted the issue.
"I've been to Beijing. I know which air I would rather breathe," he said.
The CEO conceded the TTC should conduct air quality studies more frequently than every 22 years, but he said he was confident the new data would show that "not only is the air safe, but air quality has actually improved."
In recent years the TTC has introduced newer, cleaner, subway trains and made a concerted effort to remove debris and dust from tunnels, according to Byford.
It has also ordered a state-of-the-art vacuum train equipped with a HEPA filter.
Under some conditions, high concentrations of particulates like PM2.5 have been associated with health problems, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, and even death.
Children, older adults, and people with pre-existing health conditions are particularly susceptible.
Health Canada has said indoor concentrations of PM2.5 should be kept as low as possible, but the agency hasn't set exposure limits for people riding public transit.
The Ministry of Labour also hasn't published occupational exposure limits for workers.
The TTC said it will measure the substance for "future reference to occupational standards when and if they are developed."
The study will also evaluate asbestos, crystalline respirable silica, diesel exhaust, and 30 different metals.
Some critics have rejected the study even before its results are in.
Three unions representing TTC workers have banded together to hire consultants to perform their own subway air quality study.
Kevin Morton, secretary-treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, accused the TTC study of using pollution standards that were too lenient.
"I don't believe that subway air is safe for the worker who works there eight to 10 hours a day," said Morton, whose union is the TTC's largest.
"I think it has long-term, detrimental effects on a worker's health."
Four TTC employees refused to work following the publication of the Health Canada study.
Morton said his union is advocating for workers to be allowed to wear protective masks.
The unions have budgeted $50,000 for their study.