Homeland Security and Public Safety

Massachusetts Subway the Site of DHS Biological, Chemical Airflow Studies

Commuters will see scientific equipment and researchers testing nontoxic releases.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is using the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) subway system from July 29 through Aug. 5 to test the behavior of airborne contaminants.

Commuters on the MBTA this week will see scientific equipment and researchers with monitoring devices gathering data on how airborne contaminants would behave if released in the subway and how they would affect nearby urban areas.

Previous studies by the DHS have focused on how the contaminants would behave while in the subway system. This one focuses primarily on how the contaminants will affect nearby communities.

The study is being conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, FLIR Systems Inc. and an international team from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory of the United Kingdom.

With the study, the DHS seeks data about what might happen during a deliberate release of chemical or biological agents and also an understanding of airflow characteristics for smoke or unintentional chemical or fuel spills. The data could help the MBTA develop evacuation and ventilation strategies. It is also hoped the study will yield information that will aid in designing next-generation chemical and biological agent detection systems.

“With a clear understanding of how the contaminants from the subway may spread to above-ground city centers we can use that information to enhance emergency planning and coordination across multiple jurisdictions in the response to emergency events,” said DHS Science and Technology Directorate Program Manager Teresa Lustig in a press release.

Researchers are using sulfur hexafluoride and perfluorocarbon gas tracers in the study, which are both nontoxic, inert, odorless gasses that have been used since the 1960s.

There are more than 20 sampling stations, covering the entire underground part of the MBTA system and other locations in Boston and Cambridge where air samples will be taken.