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.
“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.”
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.
“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:
Additional details about Sound Transit’s improved safety measures are available at this link.
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.”
“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:
“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."