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The London Underground: dust and hazards to health


Aims: To assess hazards associated with exposure to dust in the London Underground railway and to provide an informed opinion on the risks to workers and the travelling public of exposure to tunnel dust.

Methods: Concentrations of dust, as mass (PM2.5) and particle number, were measured at different underground stations and in train cabs; its size and composition were analysed; likely maximal exposures of staff and passengers were estimated; and in vitro toxicological testing of sample dusts in comparison with other dusts was performed.

Results: Concentrations on station platforms were 270–480 μg/m3 PM2.5 and 14 000–29 000 particles/cm3. Cab concentrations over a shift averaged 130–200 μg/m3 and 17 000–23 000 particles/cm3. The dust comprised by mass approximately 67% iron oxide, 1–2% quartz, and traces of other metals, the residue being volatile matter. The finest particles are drawn underground from the surface while the coarser dust is generated by interaction of brakes, wheels, and rails. Taking account of durations of exposure, drivers and station staff would have maximum exposures of about 200 μg/m3 over eight hours; the occupational exposure standard for welding fume, as iron oxide, is 5 mg/m3 over an eight hour shift. Toxicology showed the dust to have cytotoxic and inflammatory potential at high doses, consistent with its composition largely of iron oxide.

Discussion: It is unjustifiable to compare PM2.5 exposure underground with that on the surface, since the adverse effects of iron oxide and combustion generated particles differ. Concentrations of ultrafine particles are lower and of coarser (PM2.5) particles higher underground than on the surface. The concentrations underground are well below allowable workplace concentrations for iron oxide and unlikely to represent a significant cumulative risk to the health of workers or commuters.

  • LU, London Underground
  • PM, particulate matter
  • PNC, particle number concentration
  • dust sampling
  • iron oxide dust
  • particle counts
  • toxicology
  • underground railways

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