A team of researchers convened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began a series of tests today at 20 MBTA stations to determine how airborne contaminants would spread in a terrorist attack on Boston's subway system.
"We hope to gain information from airflow tests that tell us what type of (protective measures) to take and where to place that," said Teresa Lustig, program manager of the Chemical/Biological Division of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security. "Unfortunately, as we know, terrorists have targeted these types of systems in the past."
Threats of a chemical attack have been made against the New York subway system since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In 1995, a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by domestic terrorists killed 12 people and injured dozens. Boston's MBTA system has never received a threat or attack, said MBTA Police Chief Paul MacMillan.
"But we know by their very nature that subway systems are vulnerable to a terrorist attack," MacMillan said during a press briefing today at Haymarket Station. "This will help us prepare -- and improve -- our response plan."
Nontoxic gases and particulate matter, frequently used in air quality monitoring, will be released into the air at three underground MBTA stations. Samples will be taken at 20 other locations and on subway cars along the Red, Green, Orange, Blue and Silver lines. The goal is to measure how the gas spreads throughout tunnels and subway cars. "The gases we will be using are very safe," Lustig said.
Testing will be done on Monday during the evening rush hour. No testing is scheduled for Tuesday. On Wednesday and Thursday, testing will be done at morning rush hour. On Friday, testing will be done during the morning rush at South Station in the subway and MBTA commuter line area, officials said.
Researchers will be dressed in orange and yellow vests. Monitoring equipment will be set up on station platforms. Tests will be conducted on both platforms and in subway cars. Commuters and other T riders should not be disrupted by the testing, MacMillan said.
"Nobody should be alarmed," he said. "We're doing this to protect our passengers and employees to help us detect an attack on the system."
A second round of testing will be conducted next summer, in an attempt to understand seasonal differences in air flow, MacMillan said.
Boston is the second subway system in the country chosen for the testing by Homeland Security. Testing was already done on the subway in Washington DC, which is a newer system than Boston, one of the nation's oldest public transportation systems.
The findings will help guide the design of future detection systems and help strengthen evacuation, ventilation, and other emergency response plans on mass transit across the country. "We hope to use the data from the two to come up with a model to predict the behavior (of chemicals) in other subway systems," Lustig said.
Kathy McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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