Exploring Commuter Exposure: Characterization and Concentrations of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Manhattan Subway Microenvironment

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Drew Gentner
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Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are key contributors to poor air quality in most indoor environments, but understanding this contribution in the unique microenvironment of the Manhattan subway requires further study into this broad class of compounds and their identities, abundance, toxicity, reactivity, and potential origins. Two days of sampling were conducted in order to investigate the composition and concentrations of VOCs present throughout an average weekday at street-level, within subway cars and on station platforms. Results were obtained and analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). A preliminary examination of potential sources of identified compounds was considered, since it has been demonstrated that non-combustion-related sources, of which there is much uncertainty surrounding oxidation chemistry and emissions, currently contribute a major fraction of SOA and ozone precursors in urban settings (Khare & Gentner, 2018). Results indicated that compounds such as D5 siloxane and naphthalene were found consistently at the highest concentrations in both station and train car samples. Compounds such as limonene, nonanal and menthol, commonly used in fragranced personal care, cleaning and consumer products, were found at concentrations approximately 3-4 times higher in train cars than on train station platforms. The current state of U.S. policy seems to place emphasis on regulating air quality mainly from combustion-related sources and smoking, while information surrounding personal care and fragrance-derived sources of VOCs seem to be too inconclusive and limited to warrant a shift in language of U.S. and New York state regulation emphasizing control and transparency of the cosmetics and fragrance industry.