UW Researchers Find that Methamphetamine and Fentanyl Linger in the Air on a Majority of Public Transit in Oregon and Washington

If you’ve ever left the subway with a bit of a skip in your step or simply feeling high on life, there just might be a reason for that. I jest, of course, but those who surf the subway or buses are finding themselves concerned after a recent study from the University of Washington has shown that a majority of public transit in Oregon and Washington have traces of the drug on their surfaces. How is this possible? Here’s what they found.

In 2021, researchers in the University of Washington were approached by five different transit agencies who had their roots in Washington and Oregon. They were concerned about the comments from train and bus operators about people smoking drugs in their vehicles. Public transit is, after all, one of the most popular places where addicts like to get their fix, regardless of who is watching. If you take public transit pretty regularly, there is a great chance that you’ve witnessed one of these moments, especially with the rise of opioid consumption in the state and the legalization of other types of drugs.

There was an obvious concern by these agencies about the physical and mental health of both the staff and the people who took public transit. The fear was that the smoke could linger, making things potentially dangerous for the people aboard. That’s why these transit companies turned to the researchers, so they could answer this very question: were transit operators being exposed to drug residue in the workplace?

The answer, according to UW, is nuanced at best. To give you the most straightforward answer: yes, they did find residue of both fentanyl and methamphetamine on both the surfaces and in the air in most trains and buses. However, these samples were so small and minute in concentration that they were of no real danger to both the transit operators and the passengers when in direct contact. The question, though, is whether or not long-term exposure can have any dangerous effects. This concern is mainly for the transit operators, who often work 40-hour work weeks in these vehicles. This is not only important for the health of the workers, but also the passengers.

People who operate vehicles while under the influence, even if it’s just a minute amount, can have a harder time safely and effectively transporting their passengers from place to place. That concern, unfortunately, will remain unanswered, as the University of Washington has not been able to do the tests to figure that out. It should be noted that there have been no prior studies suggesting that passive exposure to methamphetamine or fentanyl can cause any acute medical conditions. This includes inhaling secondhand smoke or touching contaminated surfaces. This does not mean that operators are completely safe, though; there just haven’t been enough studies to give us an accurate understanding of how passive contact with drugs can affect someone. 

Another concern of UW, is over operators who might be in recovery. Our society is full of hard working people who have had weak points and picked up bad habits, but have found recovery. They work everyday jobs, such as being a transit operator. The concern is that these people could find themselves affected mentally by seeing or smelling the drugs people use on public transit. The worst case scenario, of course, is them falling off the wagon. They’re a huge part of our workforce, and it happens so often that it is a legitimate concern.


researchers were able to detect methamphetamine and fentanyl in Oregon public transport
A bus takes a corner through an intersection in downtown Portland Oregon

To get into the finer details, researchers were able to detect methamphetamine in roughly 98% of surface samples and 100% of air samples on public transits. Fentanyl, on the other hand, had been detected in 46% of surface samples and 25% of air samples. In fact, one such air sample exceeded federal recommendations for airborne fentanyl exposure at work established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Even though there is a guideline for airborne fentanyl, there isn’t one for airborne methamphetamine. From the stats given, however, it’s safe to say that we’d have a few samples breaking that guideline if it actually existed.

Although there isn’t any proof that these small airborne doses can harm people, transit agencies are still cracking down on drug usage in their vehicles. They’re trying to do all they can to stop this rampant drug usage, but they admit that they can’t do it alone. TriMet, one of the agencies that funded the research by UW, has made a statement asking for local leaders and law enforcement to do all they can to crack down on drug usage, and more importantly, addiction in general. Public transit shouldn’t be famous for being a place where people get high in full view of operators and other passengers. Despite this, they rely on the help of law enforcement and congressmen to make their transits drug-free.


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