PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A multi-agency study into the impacts and potential risks of second-hand fentanyl smoke hopes to give researchers a better understanding about its effect on public transit riders.
Professor Marissa Baker told KOIN 6 News the study is uncharted territory, marking the first study to analyze the impact of fentanyl smoke on public transit systems.
As the opioid crisis grows, TriMet said they hope the findings can not only help them keep drivers and riders safe but also set an example for best practices industry-wide.
‘You don’t feel comfortable’
Although smoking is prohibited on MAX trains and buses, people still light up while riding. Riders who spoke with KOIN 6 News at the Rose Quarter Transit Center said they know people are smoking fentanyl on board.
“You don’t feel comfortable. When someone is smoking that, then you don’t feel comfortable. They’re shouting inside… It’s serious. It’s serious,” Sampson said.
He said he’s seen riders smoke almost anything on the MAX without any consequences.
“Weed, cocaine — if you see them on the train, they are smoking it. And they [TriMet] don’t say nothing, so they have to put security on the train,” Sampson said. “That’s it.”
But Harry, who is visiting Portland for the first time, disagreed. Harry said he saw a few people smoking pot on the MAX but said it wasn’t fentanyl — and he’s not concerned.
“I don’t think that it’s really an issue,” he said.
This study ‘not something done before’
Monitoring or confronting a smoker en route can also create occupational stress for drivers beyond the exposure risks generally associated with fentanyl smoke.
“Feeling stressed, or anxious, or more likely to want to quit. It might be harder to recruit,” Baker said. “There’s also the psychosocial stressors that the drivers face, being in their work environment while trying to keep the riding public safe.”
“As fentanyl emerged as a concern to the drivers, a concern to the public, we were kind of able to work with them to come up with a plan for how we might assess it,” said Baker, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.
Baker, who is leading the research for UW, is partnering with TriMet and other transit agencies. The team will assess air samples collected by filtration devices placed on buses and trains to better understand how fentanyl moves through the air and how it affects safety.
The filtration devices do not record sound nor survey riders, she said. Most people won’t even notice they’re there.
With this new line of research, Baker said the study may generate more questions than answers.
“This is not something that has been done before,” she said. “No one has looked at how fentanyl moves through a bus, and if someone is smoking fentanyl in the back of the bus, how much of that reaches the driver, how long it could take to reach the driver, where else it could get into the bus.”
But with fentanyl use on the rise it’s important for researchers to begin to understand the potential hazards, she said.
“This is an emerging occupational exposure and emerging community exposure. And it’s important that we are starting to investigate what we are seeing and what potential risks it could pose to the riding public, and more importantly, to the drivers and operators.”
Baker said they are piloting the program in Seattle due to their close proximity. But they plan to expand to Portland with TriMet within a month or so.
“This is an emerging occupational exposure and emerging community exposure. And it’s important that we are starting to investigate what we are seeing and what potential risks it could pose to the riding public, and more importantly, to the drivers, and operators.”
KOIN 6 News will continue to follow this story.