News / Toronto

Transit workers demand meeting with TTC over subway pollution

Study published Tuesday determined levels of potentially hazardous particulate matter on TTC were as high as a typical day in Beijing.

TTC workers prepare to repair the concrete lining on the Yonge Line tunnel in 2007. The TTC union is worried about the health impacts of pollution levels in Toronto's subway tunnels.

Torstar News Service Order this photo

TTC workers prepare to repair the concrete lining on the Yonge Line tunnel in 2007. The TTC union is worried about the health impacts of pollution levels in Toronto's subway tunnels.

The TTC’s largest union is demanding an emergency meeting with transit agency officials after researchers discovered elevated levels of pollution in the subway system.

The leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents 11,000 TTC workers, say they’re concerned employees are being exposed to potentially hazardous substances on the job.

They’re also demanding to know why TTC management didn’t alert workers to the issue sooner. Researchers collected the measurements in 2010 and 2011 with the TTC’s co-operation, but the resulting study wasn’t published until Tuesday. Kevin Morton, secretary-treasurer of Local 113, said the union didn’t learn about it until it made the news.

“It begs the question, why am I finding out about this on the front page of the Toronto Star? Why didn’t the TTC come and talk to us?” he said.

“How long have they known, what did they know, and what has the TTC done to protect the workers?”

The study, which was led by Health Canada, found that concentrations of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 were 10 times higher on the TTC subway than in the air. The researchers said the levels of particulate matter were the equivalent of a typical day in notoriously smoggy Beijing.

The fine particulate matter had significant levels of iron and manganese, and the authors concluded it was likely generated by the steel-on-steel friction of the trains’ wheels against the tracks.

According to Morton, transit workers have been concerned about air quality for years. He said that when he worked in an underground office at Lawrence subway station in the 1990s, the daily buildup of particulates was visible.

“I would come in every morning and have to take wet naps and other paper towels to clean my desk, to clean my computer, to clean my seat,” he said.

“It was terrible.”

The TTC has over 600 subway operators, who according to Morton can spend up to 10 hours a day in the subway system. There are also hundreds of station collectors, janitors, and signal workers who spend a significant amount of time underground.

Morton said Local 113 planned to issue a letter Tuesday night asking the TTC for a meeting, and the union also wants a sit-down with the ministries of labour, environment, and health, as well as the Workplace Safety and Insurance board.

“As far as we’re concerned, this environment is not safe at this present time. We have to do something about it ASAP,” he said.

According to TTC spokesperson Stuart Green, the agency is “fully committed to the health and safety of our employees and our customers.” He said the most recent air quality study the TTC conducted was in 1995, and it determined that levels of pollution underground wouldn’t affect the health of anyone who didn’t have pre-existing health conditions.

Nevertheless, he said, the TTC has already undertaken work to improve its subway filtration systems, and enhance station and tunnel cleaning. The agency has also purchased a track vacuum work car and implemented a subway duct cleaning program on its older cars.

Green said the TTC planned to conduct another air quality study this year and that it would seek the input of employees.

Asked when the TTC knew about the study’s findings Green said that officials met with Health Canada in November to discuss the results “but we did not have the final paper.”

Asked why the agency didn’t discuss the study with its employees before it was published, Green said the research “was not designed to measure health impacts on employees. This work was done to gather comparative readings for future studies only.”

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