Why Is the NYPD Gassing the Subway?


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.