Traveling By Subway May Be a Health Hazard Due To Toxic Dust

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Experts found that small dust particles in the air found in underground subway stations were quite different to the dust breathed in most other surroundings. They also discovered that this may have health implications because they could penetrate the lungs and body easily including the liver, brain and kidneys.

Air pollution, a serious danger to the environment, is also a major health risk, associated with respiratory infections, lung cancer and heart disease.


Experts at the University of Southampton have called for more research to discover what the risks are as the findings could mean that working or travelling on an underground railway for a sustained period is bad for health.

Most ultrafine dust is composed of harmless compounds that do not pose much of a health risk. But the particles found in the underground stations were at least as rich in metals as the larger dust particles. This type of air pollution has previously been acknowledged as a factor in heart attack risk, as well as other health risks.

Matt Loxham, who was involved in the study, said that their findings could be of significance.

‘These tiny dust particles have the potential to penetrate the lungs and the body more easily, posing a risk to someone’s health,’ he added.

Previously published work suggested that working in environments such as steel mills or welding plants, which are rich in airborne metals, like iron, copper and nickel, could have damaging effects on health.

According to one study, each time particulate matter levels increased by 10 micrograms per cubic meter in an enclosed area over two years, the risk of dying went up by 32 percent for those with diabetes and 28 percent for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The higher risks of death appeared to be linked to higher air pollution levels in the previous two years before the patients died, suggesting the pollution acts quickly.

But little research has been done on the effects of working in an underground railway – a similarly metal-rich environment – and results of studies that have been conducted are often inconclusive.

Researchers initially collected airborne dust from a mainline underground station underneath an airport in Europe.

The metal content of the dust was analysed and a detailed profile was established for each dust sample.

These were then compared to profiles from other dusts analysed at the same time. These included dust from wood-burning stoves and a heavily-trafficked road tunnel, and showed that underground particles were very rich in metals, especially iron and copper.

The team then showed that the dust was capable of generating reactive molecules which are fundamental to their toxic effects. And, importantly, they showed the dangerous effects were greater as the size of the individual particles decreased.

While coarse dust generally sticks to the nasal passages and windpipe, fine dust can reach the bronchioles or smaller airways.

It is almost exclusively the ultrafine dust which is able to reach the deepest areas of the lungs, into the alveoli, where oxygen enters the blood and waste gases leave, to be exhaled.

There is evidence that this ultrafine dust may be able to evade the protective barrier lining the airways (the epithelium), and enter underlying tissue and the circulation, meaning that the toxicity of ultrafine particles may not be limited to the airways but may involve the cardiovascular system, liver, brain, and kidneys.

‘The high level of mechanical activity in underground railways, along with very high temperatures is key in the generation of this metal-rich dust, and the number of people likely to be exposed means that more studies into the effects of [dust] in the underground railway environment are needed.’

Mr Loxham added: “Underground rail travel is used by great numbers of people in large cities all over the world, for example, almost 1.2 billion journeys are made per year on the London Underground.

But Howard Collins, London Underground Chief Operating Officer, said: ‘We have carried out monitoring of dust levels on the Tube for many years to re-assure our passengers and staff. 

‘That research has consistently shown that mineral levels within the dust are perfectly safe and that dust levels are less than a third of the limit set by the Health and Safety Executive for general dust. 

‘That standard remains the level required by the Health and Safety Executive and would be amended if they felt there was any danger to our passengers or staff.

Originally published by: Prevent Disease