Waiting to inhale

I stood on a platform the other day waiting for the Metra train to open its doors and thought about strapping on one of those white surgical masks made popular during the H1N1 epidemic.

My fear wasn’t about contracting a deadly influenza or passing out from the nauseating fumes straying from the stuffed onboard toilets. It came to me after reading this month’s cover story, “Dirty Secret,” by Kari Lydersen.

It’s no surprise that trains emit toxic emissions from the diesel they burn as they idle in rail yards while workers are loading and unloading domestic and foreign freight.

The health impacts can be great–”from causing cancer to exacerbating asthma and other respiratory conditions leading to premature death.

As Lydersen explores, people living by rail yards are nearer to the most toxic emissions. In the Chicago area, a majority of the residents are minorities.

But this is not solely a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue. Commuters also inhale these toxins while standing on train platforms at Union Station in a blue haze of diesel fumes. Commuters are also impacted as they ride to and from work, inhaling the leftover fumes that are often trapped inside the train cars.

I’ve been riding the Metra since I was a teenager. It was a short half-hour ride back then. These days, my commute is much longer. I was afraid to calculate the number of hours I’ve spent inhaling toxic fumes. In total, I spend nearly one month on the train annually, an estimated 30,500 minutes or 508 hours each year.

Government agencies have started paying attention, and there’s some relief on the way. By 2012, locomotives will be required to use cleaner fuel and will be subjected to new emissions standards depending on their age.

But the strictest new rules only apply to new trains. Some emissions improvements are required of older, existing locomotives–”but not near enough. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions reduction schedule for existing locomotives is mild compared to what is required of new locomotives. And engines built before 1973 will be allowed to continue spewing toxic emissions with no controls–” indefinitely. Perhaps they shouldn’t. It’s probably expensive to subject every locomotive to the strictest rule. And I understand that some change is probably better than nothing, particularly since the goal seems to be to reduce emissions, not necessarily to eliminate them.

But I wonder if rail execs and politicians would think differently if they were standing on these platforms or if these trains were idling in their backyards, polluting the very air their children breathe.

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