Task Force on Health Effects of Toll Plaza Air Quality in New York City

Report to the Governor and Legislature, April 2013

Executive Summary

The Task Force on Health Effects of Toll Plaza Air Quality in New York City (Task Force) was established in 2008 by the addition of §1200 and 1201 of the Public Health Law. The Task Force was charged to:

  • Review the existing literature on air quality at toll plazas and any occupational health studies or case reports on those who work at toll plazas and identify gaps in the scientific literature, as they relate to toll plazas in New York City;
  • Identify, study, and determine health effects of air quality at toll plazas in New York City including effects on those employed at such toll plazas (to the extent that funds are appropriated);
  • Evaluate whether state law sufficiently resolves issues related to the health of those employed at such toll plazas;
  • Prepare a report identifying policy options and recommendations regarding health effects of air quality at toll plazas in New York City including effects on those employed at such toll plazas; and
  • Prepare a preliminary report to the governor and the legislature of its findings, conclusions, recommendations and activities already undertaken by the task force, not later than April 1, 2010, and a final report of its findings, conclusions, recommendations and activities already undertaken by such task force, not later than April 1, 20111, and shall submit with it, legislative proposals and regulatory changes as it deems necessary to implement its recommendations.

The Task Force met in person and by conference calls to review the existing literature on air quality at toll plazas, occupational health studies and case reports on people who work at toll plazas. The Task Force also sought information on complaints from toll plaza employees. The review found a large number of studies addressing air quality measurement at toll plazas and in toll booths, and found health studies of bridge, tunnel and toll booth workers that focused on heart disease, pulmonary disease and respiratory symptoms. The majority of the air sampling and health data were decades old and not considered to be representative of current vehicle emissions or exposures. An eight-year, retrospective records review by the New York State Department of Labor did not identify evidence of employee complaints from the New York City toll plaza workforce.

The Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) Bureau of the New York State Department of Labor enforces Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) occupational air quality standards applicable to employees at toll plazas. All air sampling results reported in the literature as well as by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) were below acceptable OSHA occupational standards, and also below guidance and recommended occupational exposure levels established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The gaps in the scientific literature identified by the Task Force included the lack of current toll plaza-specific air quality data for most of the major air pollutants, especially two pollutants of recent heightened concern, diesel exhaust particulates (DEP) and ultrafine particulates (UFP). Also lacking were studies that characterize the impact of the new electronic tolling systems on pollutant levels around toll plazas. The Task Force also found limited information about recent employee health evaluations, or health endpoints other than respiratory and cardiovascular effects.

The Task Force identified five conclusions and recommendations as a result of its literature and data review:

  1. Positive pressure heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems have been shown to reduce toll collectors' exposure to mobile source-related air pollutants in several studies of toll booth workers in areas outside of New York City. Despite high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate-bound polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in outdoor air, the levels measured inside toll booths with positive pressure HVAC systems at the Baltimore Harbor tunnel were comparable to those found in urban residential indoor environments (Sapkota et al., 2005). Similarly, sampling showed that carbon monoxide (CO) levels were reduced to levels well below acceptable exposure levels as documented in occupational standards and guidelines (Rossano et al., 1972; Burgess et al., 1977). Personal air monitoring for CO was performed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Health and Safety Department and an outside consultant in 2007 with results well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Public Employee Safety and Health (PESH) standards, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists time weighted averages (TWA). Although data are not available for every mobile source-related air contaminant, positive pressure ventilation systems currently in place would be expected to effectively reduce and control employee exposure to other mobile source-related pollutants while in the toll booth.

    Recommendation 1: The MTA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) should continue to maintain a program to conduct periodic inspection and maintenance on the toll booth positive-pressure HVAC systems to keep them operating in optimal condition, so that exposures continue to be controlled by the HVAC system.

  2. Increasing automation of toll collection (i.e., E-Z Pass and boothless plazas) is expected to continue to reduce the exposure of toll booth collectors to air pollutants both by reducing the number of on-site toll collectors and by speeding the flow of traffic through the toll plazas. There is some evidence that implementation of E-Z Pass reduces air pollution levels at toll plazas and in the surrounding communities by decreasing vehicle idling and stop-and-go traffic (Saka, 2000; Lin and Yu, 2008). Although long-term impacts have not been evaluated, minimizing the stop-and-go of traffic at the toll plaza will likely reduce air pollution impacts in the region as well as in the surrounding community.

    Recommendation 2: The MTA and PANYNJ should support efforts to increase the automation of the toll collection process (i.e., E-Z Pass use and boothless plazas) to minimize traffic congestion to the extent practical, while also minimizing congestion at cash only lanes.

  3. Health studies of New York City toll plaza workers conducted 15 to 30 years ago reported an increased risk of heart and lung disease. The health status of New York City toll plaza workers, as a group, has not been assessed since that time. However, significant reductions in motor vehicle emissions have occurred over the past 30 years due to changes in gasoline/diesel fuel composition, emission controls, engine efficiency, E-Z Pass, toll plaza traffic pattern design, and positive-pressure HVAC systems in toll booths. These improvements have resulted in a reduction of occupational exposure and health risk from mobile source emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) national emissions control program aims to continue to reduce exposure to mobile source air toxics (MSAT). EPA-projected reductions are expected to reduce MSAT emissions by 57 to 87 percent between 2000 and 2020. Local conditions in terms of vehicle mix and turnover, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), growth rates and local control measures may impact the amount of reduction in different areas. The magnitude of the EPA-projected reductions is, however, so great (even after accounting for VMT growth), that MSAT emissions are expected to decline. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) projects decreases for nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). In addition, CO levels in ambient air nationwide have decreased by 50 percent since 1990, largely due to emission controls for on-road vehicles. Although exposure of toll plaza workers to motor vehicle emissions has significantly declined over the past 20 years and should continue to decline in the future, their health status, as a group, has not been routinely monitored over that time period. The potential for a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Health Hazard Evaluation should be considered as NIOSH has the expertise, resources and experience to conduct health studies for the MTA and PANYNJ employees for existing and emerging health concerns.

    Recommendation 3: Unions and management for the MTA and PANYNJ should engage the New York State Occupational Health Clinic Network and/or NIOSH to assess the need for a program of periodic health screenings for the toll plaza workers. The screenings would include, but not be limited to, pulmonary function and cardiovascular health.

  4. The data that were used to characterize pollutant exposures in the environment near toll booths were collected at curbside, adjacent to toll plazas at various sites across the country and internationally. This type of environmental sampling represents the contribution of traffic-related air pollutants to population-level exposures in adjacent neighborhoods based on the proximity to the traffic. The focus in the past on CO in near-booth and in-booth studies was directed at a traffic-related pollutant that presents significant acute health concerns, is amenable to measurement and monitoring, and can be considered a surrogate indicator for other combustion related pollutants. Other transportation-related pollutants do not exhibit all of these attributes, making sampling more challenging. For example, transportation related particulates are present across a relatively wide size distribution, and have different atmospheric residence times, composition and chemical reactivity. These factors need to be considered in designing studies to characterize the potential hazards from particulates around the toll plaza environment. EPA already has studies underway to address transportation-related pollutants near roadways. These studies will provide additional information about criteria pollutants in the near roadway environment that can be compared to levels measured at community-scale monitors.

    Recommendation 4: The New York State Department of Health (DOH), DEC and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYCDOHMH) should monitor the current EPA-funded studies regarding the behavior and concentration of pollutants in the near-roadway environment for their relevance to both occupational exposures and community exposures to traffic-related pollutants near toll plazas. With respect to particulate matter research, New York State should encourage EPA to fund studies that will: better refine the appropriate technologies for sampling; identify the particulate indicators and toxicological endpoints of concern; and incorporate environmental sampling near toll plazas as a high exposure, micro-environment with implications for general ambient air quality. Environmental sampling near toll plazas will help to assess the possible health risks (including those for vulnerable occupational or residential populations) from exposure to mobile source emissions at or near these toll plazas and will provide a benchmark for evaluating control measures to be used in future assessments. If resources are available, the DOH and DEC should consider a pilot project to monitor at and near toll booth plazas to fill data gaps in EPA studies with regard to worker exposures at toll plazas and air quality in adjacent communities. This monitoring could also serve to fulfill federally mandated near-roadway multi-pollutant monitoring.

  5. Significant data gaps and scientific challenges remain with respect to assessing exposure to airborne particulates of health concern. Health studies should incorporate real-time and recognized occupational methods (e.g., NIOSH) of monitoring mobile-source related particulates (e.g., elemental carbon). Near-roadway monitoring initiatives at toll plazas could also be used to characterize particulate matter components for a more detailed assessment of human health impacts from traffic-source combustion particulates. Deployment of real-time monitoring instruments for elemental carbon should be evaluated on a pilot basis, and if useful, implemented as an ongoing program.

    Recommendation 5: DOH, DEC and NYCDOHMH should monitor EPA's progress in developing a reference analytical method for sub-micron particulates and initiating near-roadway monitoring that incorporates sampling for specific particulate fractions and source attribution to assist in identifying significant particulate sources.

This report fulfills the Task Force's requirements to report to the Governor and Legislature on its findings, conclusions, recommendations and activities already undertaken regarding toll plaza air quality in New York City.

  • 1 A 2011 amendment to the Public Health Law extended this date to April 1, 2012.