The United States Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 reflected increasing concern about potential effects of low-level airborne metal exposure on a wide array of illnesses. Here we summarize results demonstrating that the New York City (NYC) subway system provides an important microenvironment for metal exposures for NYC commuters and subway workers and also describe an ongoing pilot study of NYC transit workers' exposure to steel dust. Results from the TEACH (Toxic Exposure Assessment, a Columbia and Harvard) study in 1999 of 41 high-school students strongly suggest that elevated levels of iron, manganese, and chromium in personal air samples were due to exposure to steel dust in the NYC subway. Airborne concentrations of these three metals associated with fine particulate matter were observed to be more than 100 times greater in the subway environment than in home indoor or outdoor settings in NYC. While there are currently no known health effects at the airborne levels observed in the subway system, the primary aim of the ongoing pilot study is to ascertain whether the levels of these metals in the subway air affect concentrations of these metals or related metabolites in the blood or urine of exposed transit workers, who due to their job activities could plausibly have appreciably higher exposures than typical commuters. The study design involves recruitment of 40 transit workers representing a large range in expected exposures to steel dust, the collection of personal air samples of fine particulate matter, and the collection of blood and urine samples from each monitored transit worker.
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