Health officials say riding transit remains safe; drug levels detected on public transportation ‘extremely low’. Agencies continue vehicle filtration system improvements and cleaning protocols already underway
In a first-of-its-kind study, the University of Washington today released an analysis of drug smoke and residue samples collected on transit vehicles, and health officials say the levels are “extremely low” and that riding transit remains safe. The five transit agencies that sponsored the study—Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Everett Transit and TriMet—are continuing plans to implement health and safety improvements based on the study’s findings and recommendations.
The study, commissioned in response to concerns about employee and rider health, assessed levels of fentanyl and methamphetamine in the air and on surfaces in public transportation buses and trains. Researchers found the amounts of substances are extremely small, and according to public health officials, do not represent a health issue to riders. Drug use on transit remains illegal, and anyone found to be violating transit policies is subject to being removed from transit.
Last spring, UW researchers collected air samples and surface samples from 11 buses and 19 train cars on routes, runs and times of day when smoking of controlled substances was most likely to occur based on past incident reports. While air and surface samples had detectable fentanyl or methamphetamine, the levels measured do not pose a health risk to the riding public or employees according to health officials.
To help reduce the potential for any secondhand exposure, the study recommends improved ventilation and air filtration, enhanced cleaning practices, and training for operators on agency protocols around substance use with transit vehicles and other related topics.
The agencies join in thanking the University of Washington’s research team for its work to execute the study.
Public Health Response
“It’s important to have studies like this one from the University of Washington to help identify when there are new substances that may be circulating in our indoor environments. When someone uses fentanyl or methamphetamine, the concentration of leftover drug in the air is minimal. Therefore, secondhand exposure to low levels of residue in the air is unlikely to lead to negative health effects,” said Dr. Faisal Khan, Director of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We all want to travel and work in indoor environments with the best air quality possible, so while the risk is low, I’m encouraged to hear about the steps local transit agencies are taking to improve ventilation and filtration. These improvements have benefits across health issues, such as reducing risk of transmission of respiratory illness, and can serve as a model for improving indoor air quality in many of our indoor public spaces.”
“Transit is a critical service, and equitable access to safe transportation is part of a healthy community. We understand that the detection of fentanyl and methamphetamine in these spaces is concerning. Available evidence and knowledge about the chemistry of these substances indicate that the risk to the public from secondhand exposure is low, and we will continue to monitor as our knowledge base grows,” said Dr. James Lewis, Snohomish County Health Officer. “We support improving air quality and enhancing hygiene and cleaning. These steps are beneficial in many ways, including reducing exposure risk from substances like those detected in the study as well as reducing risk of spreading common respiratory illnesses such as flu, cold, or COVID.”
Perspective from the Washington and Oregon Poison Control Centers is available here.
Changes underway at transit agencies
The four participating transit agencies in the Puget Sound region have already begun to implement changes to reduce the risk of secondhand exposure for riders and operators.
King County Metro
“We place a high value on being responsive to employee and rider concerns, and in making decisions based on science,” said King County Metro General Manager Michelle Allison. “The study reaffirms our strategies are the right ones, and adds to Metro’s determination to continuously improve.”
- Discouraging or preventing drug use on transit is the first step in reducing levels in the air and on surfaces. Metro has 120 transit security officers and is budgeted to grow to 140.
- Metro already has made progress on the highest priority interventions thanks to work that began several years ago that we continue to advance today. Key among them was to upgrade ventilation and improve cleaning practices.
- Metro buses are outfitted with MERV-11 and MERV-13 filters, the best possible filtration available for transit vehicles and capable of filtering airborne viruses and drug smoke particulates. We are in the process of converting the remaining 448 buses from MERV-11 to MERV-13 in the coming weeks.
- Enhanced bus cleaning practices were recently piloted at two bases and initial study indicates they are highly effective at reducing drug residue to the lowest possible levels, which in turn provides the best standard of safety for our ridership and team members.
- Those bus cleaning practices will expand to all seven bases and include upgrading from dry sweeping to HEPA vacuums and implementing a detergent-based deep cleaning of buses every 10-14 days. Daily wipe-downs of high-touch areas and the driver’s area also will continue to take place.
“The safety of our staff, our riders, and our community is always our highest priority,” stated Sound Transit Chief Executive Officer Julie Timm. “While this is the underlying motivation for Sound Transit’s commissioning of this study last year, it is also the reason why we did not wait to increase our security presence and to start pilot partnerships with support services on our system earlier this year. We are all relieved to hear from public health officials that the study results indicate there is no public health risk on transit, and we will continue to enact measures to continuously, proactively, and equitably improve our safety and environmental conditions.”
Sound Transit is taking several steps to enhance safety and security, some of which are already in progress, including:
- Enforcement of transit code of conduct. Sound Transit employs over 55 officers from King County Sheriff’s Office with a budget to grow to over 90 officers. Additionally, we average over 250 transit security officers on our system weekly based on new contracts executed in the Spring of 2023. With this support, Sound Transit security began removing people using drugs on vehicles and encouraging all riders to call security when they witness violations. This has resulted in fewer rider complaints and a decline in reports of this behavior on the system.
- More frequent and enhanced cleaning protocols. Sound transit relies on our partnership with King County Metro for the cleaning of our light rail vehicles. We are fully supportive of the measures they are employing to clean their buses and will look to expand that program onto light rail vehicles.
- Improved filtration on light rail vehicles. The agency continues to review options to further improve onboard air filtration.
Additional details about Sound Transit’s improved safety measures are available at this link.
“We are prioritizing employee and customer concerns and taking decisive actions to increase security staffing, upgrade air filtration on buses and enhance our cleaning protocols,” said Ric Ilgenfritz, CEO of Community Transit. “Our system is safe, and we’re committed to keeping it that way for our employees and for those we serve.”
Community Transit is taking the following steps:
- Increasing security by expanding the agency’s Transit Security Officer (TSO) program. TSOs enforce the Community Transit Rules of Conduct which explicitly prohibit smoking and drug use. TSOs work closely with other resources including the Transit Police Unit, social worker, service ambassadors, and field supervisors.
- Improving air quality on buses by upgrading air filters from MERV-7 to MERV-13 on most Community Transit buses. MERV-13 air filters are recommended by UW researchers and public health officials because they remove most particles that include smoke, smog and viruses. The agency is working to complete installation of the new filters by the end of September. On double-deck buses where this type of filter is not compatible, filters have been upgraded to MERV-11 while the agency works with manufacturers to determine the best way to accommodate MERV-13 filters.
- Enhancing cleaning procedures by implementing deep cleaning of buses using best practices and products for removing and neutralizing drug residue while incorporating advice from the Snohomish County Health Department and private sector firms that specialize in drug-related cleanups. Community Transit is actively procuring vendor support for these efforts.
“Keeping our operators and riders safe is incredibly important to us,” said Tom Hingson, transportation and transit services director of Everett Transit. “We have prioritized developing an early and coordinated response to discourage and mitigate the impacts of illegal substance use on public transit.”
- Everett Transit partnered with the Everett Police Department to launch the “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which empowers operators and transit riders to speak up when they see illegal conduct to ensure it is addressed immediately.
- Updated training has been provided to operators about how to address individuals using substances on public transit.
- All fixed route buses are equipped with MERV 13 filters.
- Everett Transit operates 35’ and 40’ coaches, which gives operators an enhanced ability to see behaviors taking place on the coach. In addition, all riders are required to enter through the front door and interface with the operator, which can help deter some unwanted behavior.