New York City

Only a test: Gas released into NYC subways on Tuesday

Part of largest anti-terror study ever in city

July 9, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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On your way to work Tuesday, you may have drifted through a cloud of a harmless perfluorocarbon gas, part of a gigantic anti-terror study carried out by Brookhaven National Laboratory with the NYPD.

The study, called the “largest urban airflow study ever,” is meant to follow the trail of airborne chemical, biological and radiological weapons throughout the city. Low concentrations of the “tracer” gas were released for a 30-minute period at subway and street locations south of 59th Street in Manhattan, and then tracked as it made its way across the five boroughs.

Roughly 200 breadbox-sized sampling devices have been stashed throughout the subway system at 21 stations and on street light poles throughout the city. Some devices were also hand-carried by researchers.

“For security reasons, we’re not giving out the locations of the devices,” Peter Genzer, spokesperson for Brookhaven, told the Brooklyn Eagle on Tuesday.  But the boxes “are pretty obvious in subway stations.” Genzer said testing took place from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

The test will be repeated two more times in July, the exact days depending on the weather. Notify NYC will send out an alert the night before the gas release, Genzer said.

According to NYPD, the city will use the data collected during the three days of research to “optimize emergency response following an intentional or accidental release of hazardous materials.”

“The NYPD works for the best but plans for the worst when it comes to potentially catastrophic attacks such as ones employing radiological contaminants or weaponized anthrax,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a release. “This field study with Brookhaven’s outstanding expertise will help prepare and safeguard the city’s population in the event of an actual attack.”

“This study will bolster the NYPD’s understanding of contaminant dispersion within the subway system as well as between the subway system and the street,,” said MTA Acting Chairman Fernando Ferrer.

Perfluorocarbon tracers (or PFTs) have “incredible staying power,” according to the Gizmodo website, making them perfect for tracking purposes. They can pass through fabric and are easy to detect, because they aren’t found in nature.

The Subway-Surface Air Flow Exchange (S-SAFE), as the project is formally known, was commissioned by the NYPD and funded through a $3.4 million Department of Homeland Security Transit Security Grant.

A similar but smaller study, called the Urban Dispersion Program, was carried out in 2005 in midtown Manhattan south of Central Park, also using PFTs.

In in earlier vulnerability test in 1966, the U.S. Army released live germs (the generally-harmless Bacillus globigii) into the tunnels of the New York City subway system, according to Wikipedia.

The army has since been criticized for the release of live bacteria, potentially harmful to small children and immunocompromised adults.

According to Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Newark as quoted on the Democracy Now website, the results showed that if a pathogenic organism were released onto the tracks, “more than half of the people who were riding the subways could have become deathly ill.”

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