Sep 8, 2023 - News

Traces of fentanyl and meth linger on Seattle public transit, study finds

Two Sound Transit trains pass by one another at a train platform.

Sound Transit trains pass one another at the Mount Baker station in 2022. Photo: Melissa Santos/Axios

Researchers are recommending upgrading air filters on buses and trains after finding trace amounts of fentanyl and methamphetamine on public transit in and around Seattle.

The big picture: Public health officials say the drug levels weren't high enough to pose a risk to the public — but the long term-effects on drivers working in such conditions haven't been thoroughly studied, the researchers said.

Why it matters: Transit agencies have reported frequent illegal drug use on buses and trains, which some drivers have feared is compromising their health from secondhand exposure.

What they did: University of Washington researchers collected dozens of samples from 11 buses and 19 trains across five Pacific Northwest transit agencies, including TriMet in Portland, King County Metro in Seattle and Sound Transit, which serves the Puget Sound region.

What they found: Researchers detected small levels of methamphetamine in all 78 air samples taken.

  • They also found methamphetamine in 100 of 102 surface samples they collected.
  • Fentanyl was detected in a quarter of the air samples and nearly half of the samples taken from surfaces.

Yes, but: "Just because we can measure it in the lab, does not necessarily mean it's at a level that can pose a health risk to operators or riders," said Marissa Baker, a UW assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences who co-led the assessment.

  • At the same time, Baker told reporters at a press conference Thursday that "there isn't a lot of research as to what levels may cause health effects and after how much time."

State of play: Neither Washington, Oregon nor the federal government have enforceable standards for what level of fentanyl or methamphetamine exposure is appropriate in the workplace, Baker said.

  • With that in mind, the researchers recommend "controlling exposure to the lowest level that is reasonably achievable," she said.
  • That means adopting enhanced cleaning protocols and upgrading air filtration systems on transit to a MERV-13 efficiency standard, or at least to the highest feasible standard, the research team said.

What they're saying: Transit agencies across the Puget Sound region, including King County Metro and Community Transit in Everett, told reporters Thursday that they are in the process of upgrading their air filtration systems to MERV-13.

  • About two-thirds of Metro's fleet already has those filters, and "we're continuing to add that across our entire system," Metro's general manager Michelle Allison told reporters.
  • Meanwhile, Metro plans to adopt stricter cleaning protocols systemwide later this year, Allison said.

Plus: Sound Transit said it is boosting its security staffing to help respond to reports of drug use and remove people as necessary. "No one has the right to violate the law," Sound Transit CEO Julie Timm said at a news conference, noting that it's illegal to smoke or use drugs on trains.

What we're watching: Whether future research delves deeper into the health effects of prolonged exposure to traces of fentanyl and methamphetamine in the workplace.


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