EPA Finds Dirty Air in Chicago Union Station

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says passengers and workers at Chicago Union Station are being exposed to high levels of air pollution.

EPA researchers drew that conclusion after taking air samples during a two-week period last July.

Using portable aerosol monitors to measure microscopic particles in the air around the station platforms and nearby streets, the researchers found particularly high levels of PM2.5 along the south platforms.

Chicago Union StationChicago-based EPA Air quality specialist John Mooney said PM2.5 are liquid droplets and acids, metals, or other pollutants that are byproduct of diesel fuel-burning locomotives.

EPA researchers had expected lower levels of pollutants on the south platforms. “They were higher than we like to see,” Mooney said.

Passengers on the platforms inhale these PM2.5 particles and Dr. Samuel Dorevitch of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health said that microscopic particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter could travel from the nose or mouth to the lungs

“The Union Station isn’t just an ordinary [station]. It also has diesel emissions and those Metra trains run on diesel emissions. Along with being plain old bad, the PM2.5  [are] a known human carcinogen,” Dorevitch said.

Dorevictch said that once the particles pass through the bronchial sacs into the lung cells and into the bloodstream, they can trigger an inflammatory response, which can cause cancer.

The EPA is working with Amtrak and Metra to minimize the effects of PM2.5 on Union Station users and workers. “Exposure to PM2.5 is something we try to minimize. We have a situation that needs attention,” Mooney said.

Some short-term solutions that the parties are considering include changing the direction of trains entering platforms, making sure trains don’t idle excessively on the platforms and maintaining a safe distance between passengers and locomotives.

Replacing older locomotives for cleaner and more efficient fuel-burning locomotives would be the best solution, but that would take time and money.

“We all know the long-term solution is to move to cleaner engines,” Mooney said. “And there are cleaner technologies out there now; the technology has improved considerably.”

In the meantime, Mooney said that the EPA, Amtrak and Metra are working with building owners to see if their [ventilation systems] can run longer and harder as a way of protecting workers in the area around the station.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the passenger railroad is updating ventilation systems and viaduct systems surrounding Union Station.

“The ventilation is an important issue and it’s going to be addressed through an ongoing process through the city’s master plan. We are working with the city on the Canal Street [ventilation system] that covers all the tracks,” he said.

In a statement, Metra said it was partnering with the city of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority on a long-term solution to address the air quality issues that could be solved through the master plan to reconfigure and redevelop Union Station.

Mooney said it won’t be clear if any progress has been made until another air quality study is conducted.

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