Why Is the NYPD Gassing the Subway?

Categories: Subway Fun

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Today is an airflow study day in the New York subway system. That means that, mixed in with the 4.3 million riders who board the subway on any given day, there will be about 150 researchers conducting an experiment that the NYPD hopes will equip officers with the information they need to respond if there is a terrorist attack on our subway system.

Tokyo, 1995: Sarin gas released on multiple subway lines kills 13; 50 more are severely injured, thousands suffer from temporary blindness. Madrid, 2004: Coordinated bombings strike a commuter rail line, killing 191, wounding 1,800. London, 2005: A series of bombs triggered during the morning rush kill 52, injure 700. Subways are a favored target for terrorists, and New York has one of the busiest subway systems in the world.

Work on today's experiment started around 4:30 a.m., when the researchers, mostly interns, reported to the Brookhaven National Laboratory's storage facility in Brooklyn to pick up the equipment. From there, they fanned out to locations around the city to install two kinds of boxes: some that disperse tracer gases into the air, and some that collect samples of the air.

At the end of the day, the samples will be taken back to Brookhaven for analysis. The concentration of tracers found at different stations will be able to show researchers how air travels through the subway.

"When you think about it, any contaminant, no matter what it is--whether it's poison gas, or a toxic gas, or a biological agent, or even a radiological material--the way it moves is the way air moves," Paul Kalb, a Brookhaven scientist who is helping direct the study, tells the Voice.

Kalb and his coworkers hope their study will provide the NYPD with critical information needed to respond to "an accidental or malicious release of toxic material."

The data Brookhaven is collecting will help determine "which areas of the city are safe for evacuation, which areas would be safe to shelter people in place, which train lines may be impacted," Kalb explains. "[For example,] if there were something in the 1, 2, 3 train line is that going to go over to the A, C, E, or the F train, or wherever--those are questions that are quite important in being able to optimize the response and get things going quickly and safely."

The tracer Brookhaven is using to conduct the study is called perfluorocarbon. Perfluorocarbons, Kalb says, "have a very unique chemical signature and we can analyze for them in very, very low quantities."

The last time Brookhaven released these gases--researchers are performing the study over three days in July, and today is the second day--fliers were circulated in the subway warning commuters that the gases being released had been proven to cause early menopause.

The flyer, Kalb says, misidentified the material utilized in the study. "Those compounds that were cited in that study are not the materials we are using. They are not related to the materials we are using. Those are relatively reactive compounds. The materials we use are what we call fully fluorinated, nonreactive materials--they don't react with other chemicals or interact with biological processes.

"So, our materials are, in fact, safe and they are not anything like the ones that are cited in that study."

Perfluorocarbon is a greenhouse gas, though, which Kalb readily admits could be harmful to the environment in significant quantities.

"If somebody were to say, 'I'm going to release 400 million tons of PFCs,' yeah, that's a problem, Kalb says. "But if you're going to talk about a gram--if I had an eyedropper and I put on single drop of a solution in the entire Atlantic Ocean, do you think I'd ever be able to find that or it would have any effect whatsoever? Even if that was the most toxic material in the universe, that would have zero impact."

The study, Kalb hopes, will have a significant impact on the way the NYPD responds to a crisis in the subway--but, whether it does or not, New Yorkers will never know .

"The results of the study will not be released to the public because we don't want to provide a primer for terrorists on how best to do this. That's pretty obvious," Kalb says.

Send story tips to the author, Tessa Stuart

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4 comments
Maggie_Zhou
Maggie_Zhou

(part 4):

It's worth pointing out that for context, another potent and very long-lived greenhouse gas, nitrogen trifluoride, saw its mean global tropospheric concentration rose from about 0.02 ppt (parts per trillion) in 1980, to 0.86 ppt in 2011, with a rate of increase of 0.095 ppt yr−1, or about 11% per year, and is considered alarming enough that it has been added to the second compliance period of the Kyoto protocol.  Also, ozone depleting CFCs exist in the atmosphere in the ppt range (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ozone_cfc_trends.png) yet have caused dramatic depletion of ozone that an emergency international treaty to eliminate their use was necessary and may have brought us back from the brink (but final words on that is still "in the air", as ozone depletion interplays with global warming in many complicated ways that are only partially being understood).  The bottom line is, just because something is used in ppm range (and of course we all know that even CO2 is present in hundreds of ppm range) doesn't mean a supposed expert has any grounds to make such a patently false statement to the public as "do you think I'd ever be able to find that or it would have any effect whatsoever? Even if that was the most toxic material in the universe, that would have zero impact." (finished)

Maggie_Zhou
Maggie_Zhou

(part 3):

Another crutial omission is dose.  While the project organizer tells us the quantity used is like a "single drop of a solution in the entire Atlantic Ocean", the Brookhaven lab website (which you did not cite) said they used PFCs in the low parts per million range, and that "one part per million is equivalent to half-a-drop of water in a full average-size bathtub".  Apparently somebody thinks a bathtub and the Atlantic Ocean are about the same size and both more than sufficient for the solution of pollution using dilution. http://www.bnl.gov/s-safe/perfluorocarbon.php 

The funny thing is, the same Brookhaven lab link above also states scientists can "detect and track (the chosen PFC) at incredibly small concentrations — down to just a few parts per quadrillion (one part in 1,000,000,000,000,000 or a thousand million million)."  If so, one has to ask why inject into the subway at concentrations of many parts per million PFC?  That's billions of times above detection limit.  Also, people who happened to be near the injection sites will be exposed to higher concentrations than if averaged over the volume of air in the entire subway system.  (continued ...)

Maggie_Zhou
Maggie_Zhou

(part 2):

Besides, even though wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfluorocarbon) also says perfluorocarbons "that contain only single bonds are more chemically and thermally stable than alkanes", that doesn't mean they're completely chemically inactive, and certainly doesn't mean they have no effect on biological processes.  Many small molecules exert dramatic biological effects without being directly part of a chemical reaction.  The same wikipedia entry also points out the bioaccumulative properties of stable perfluorocarbons.  PFOA (used in Teflon coating and many other products), once thought to be among the most inert, is highly bioaccumulative, and has devastating health effects.  (continued ...)

Maggie_Zhou
Maggie_Zhou

Dear Tessa, 

Thanks for this article.  Please note that if the article aims to be informative rather than biased/propagandistic, the first requirement is that it gives accurate, basic information for readers to come to informed opinions. 

In this case the reader has no information whatsoever about even the exact name of the type of perfluorocarbon used (so they can't look it up), despite the project's organizer being given the oppurtunity to assure the public that "The materials we use are what we call fully fluorinated, nonreactive materials--they don't react with other chemicals or interact with biological processes."  Remember - this was what we were taught about all plastics too, back in chemistry classes in school.  But now it seems that "almost all plastic products" sampled released chemicals with estrogenic activity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic).  (continued next ...)

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