The Ontario Ministry of Labour has determined that the air quality in the TTC subway system is “not likely to endanger” employees. The ruling comes after the publication this week of study that found elevated pollution levels on Toronto’s transit system.
In a statement released Thursday, the TTC said that the ministry was called in to investigate after four employees instigated work refusals over concerns about air quality. The employees — three subway operators and a maintenance worker — wanted to be permitted to wear protective masks.
“The ministry’s ruling confirmed that the TTC met all of its legal and due diligence obligations,” said the TTC’s statement, which added that “the air quality in the subway system is safe and personal protective equipment related to air quality is not required.”
The release quoted TTC CEO Andy Byford as saying it was “most regrettable” that in “certain media articles” the air quality on the subway was compared to that of Beijing, “one of the planets most polluted cities.”
“Doing so, frankly, has caused harm to the TTC’s reputation and unnecessary alarm for some TTC employees,” Byford said.
The comparison to Beijing was made by Greg Evans, a University of Toronto engineering professor who co-authored the study.
Earlier this week he was quoted by several media outlets, including the Star, as saying the level of fine particulate matter found in the subway was comparable to a typical day in the Chinese city, known for high levels of pollution.
The study, which was led by Health Canada and published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, discovered the mean concentration of a fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 on the subway system was 95 micrograms per cubic metre, or 10 times the levels outside.
The researchers didn’t measure the possible health effects of the pollution, which they said was high in iron and was likely generated by friction between the steel subway wheels and tracks.
PM2.5 is not considered a health hazard for most people, but experts say it can cause illness in vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with certain health conditions.
In a letter to the TTC on Thursday, Health Canada reiterated that the study results were not intended to measure the health hazards of the subway system.
The health agency said that researchers have conducted air quality studies of other subway systems around the world, including New York and London, and pollution levels on the TTC are “consistent with levels observed elsewhere.”
Despite the ministry’s determination, leaders of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 were not convinced that the subway air is safe for employees who can spend over eight hours a day underground.
“There’s no level of acceptability” for fine particulates, said Kevin Morton, secretary-treasurer of Local 113, which represents over 10,000 transit workers. “They’re bad for you.”
Morton argued that workers who want to should be allowed to wear masks, and warned “there could potentially be job action” if they’re not permitted.
“Why is the TTC afraid to give their employees the option of wearing a mask?” he asked.
The TTC has not conducted its own major air quality study of the subway since 1995, but plans to perform one this year.
The transit agency says that since the last study it has taken several steps to improve underground air quality.