MBTA buses are poisoning passengers

By | January 8, 2013

Have you ever noticed a strong smell of diesel fumes in an MBTA bus, most strongly at the back of the bus?

The smell comes from diesel exhaust leaking into the passenger compartment of the bus. It is extremely toxic. Its short-term effects include headache, dizziness, light-headedness, and nausea. Long-term effects include cardiovascular disease, cardiopulmonary disease, and cancer.

This only happens on diesel buses, not on the buses fulled by chilled natural gas, and it only happens on some of the diesel buses. I don’t know whether this is because the T uses different models of diesel bus and only some models have the problem, or because the buses exhibiting this problem are broken and need to be fixed.

A similar problem with diesel passenger trains in the Chicago public transit system was reported on at length in the Chicago Tribune. At first, the transit system refused to acknowledge that there was a problem. Eventually, the Tribune‘s reporting forced them to not only acknowledge the problem but to take steps to address it. Unfortunately, there has been no similar investigation of the MBTA.

I know first-hand that this issue is real, because I commute by MBTA bus to and from work every day, and if the bus smells of fumes when I get on, it’s a sure thing that by the time I get off 30-45 minutes later, I will be tired, dizzy, and nauseated, even though I felt fine when I boarded the bus. I do not feel this way after riding on a bus that does not smell.

I have reported fume-filled buses to the MBTA on numerous occasions since 2001. Sometimes they have acknowledged my reports and said that they would check out the affected buses. Other times, my reports have been ignored. I have encountered same same bus filled with fumes on multiple occasions.

The diesel smell in the affected buses is not subtle; it is strong and obvious. If the MBTA were truly serious about preventing its passengers from being exposed to toxic fumes, all it would need to do is have bus drivers walk the length of their buses at the beginning and end of their shifts, and take out of service any buses with a strong diesel smell. The fact that they do not do this makes it clear that they do note take this problem seriously. This is unfortunate, since they are literally poisoning their passengers.

I’m not the only person to notice this problem. See, for example, http://www.transitboston.com/tag/fumes/, https://twitter.com/lbjay/status/276318823697747969. A friend of mine with a Ph.D. in chemistry says that it is so obvious to her that the fumes are dangerous that she does note allow her children to ride in the back of any MBTA bus, since the concentration of fumes is strongest in the back, closest to the engine.

I have attempted to bring this issue to the attention of the Boston news media in the hope that they would launch an investigation similar to the Tribune‘s in Chicago; I have been ignored. I have attempted to enlist the help of the Harvard School of Public Health; I was turned down there as well. I have contacted my state senator, Will Brownsberger, who is quite receptive to issues which concern constituents. He has responded that he believes the issue is a legitimate one and asked his staff to contact the MBTA about it and see what they have to say; thus far, they have not responded to his staff.

I am concerned not only for my own health, but for the health of all MBTA bus passengers, as well as for the health of drivers, who are exposes to these fumes for longer than any passenger, though fortunately, their exposure isn’t nearly as high as that of passengers near the back of the bus.

If you have any suggestions for what else I might do to try to bring this issue to the attention of someone who might be able to do something about it, please email me or comment below.

UPDATE: I’ve posted a list of the reports I’ve submitted to the MBTA about fume-filled buses, and I will continue to update that page as I submit additional reports.

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2 thoughts on “MBTA buses are poisoning passengers

    1. jik Post author

      Pamphleting campaign on the buses to try to generate press interest?

      It’s not clear to me that pamphleting would get the press interested. It’s also not clear to me that it wouldn’t get me arrested or kicked off of buses. See what happened when I tried to leaflet about the T at South Station.

      Class-Action lawsuit? That might get the MBTA’s attention.

      Yeah, I’ve thought about that, but it’d be a very difficult case to make and therefore a very difficult case to find lawyers to take on. The class representative would have to be able to show that s/he suffered from illness generally caused by diesel fumes; that it is likely that said illness was caused by diesel fumes in MBTA bus passenger compartments; and that there are enough other people in similar circumstances to make a class. I just don’t see that as something that’s provable in court, even if it is true.


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