Plenty to Say About Subway Test Gas That Isn’t Seen

from nytimes.com: The subway has always been a peculiar hell for the germaphobic — each
station crevice and distressingly warm pole evoking visions of
air-filtering masks and hand sanitizer.



But this week, New York City’s riders have begun to face down a more
disquieting menace still, following them through the turnstiles, wafting
toward the platform, slipping between the sliding car doors to zip
through the tunnels.



They think.

On Tuesday, the Police Department and the United States Department of Energy began a study
aimed at better understanding the airflow of contaminants in the subway
system, including possible chemical weapons, by emitting a nontoxic,
odorless and invisible gas in scores of subway stations. It has been
billed as the country’s largest-ever urban airflow study. 

Though interested travelers could find no trace of the gas, questions
about the program ranged from the searingly paranoid to the existential. 

How could the city be sure it was not dangerous? If an odorless gas
consumes what is perhaps the least odorless feature of New York City,
was it ever really there? And why had they punted on scent in the first
place? 

“What they need to do is add some fragrance,” a police officer said
beside a No. 1 train platform at 34th Street, “to cover up the other
smells.” 

Tuesday was the first of three days of testing, though the dates for the
next two have not been determined
, according to Raymond W. Kelly, the
police commissioner. Speaking at an event in Harlem, Mr. Kelly noted
that about 40 percent of “terrorist plots” around the world centered on
transportation systems, including five directed at the New York City
subways. He assured the public that the gas was harmless. 

“It’s actually used to inflate babies’ lungs,” he said. Similar studies
have been conducted in subway systems in Boston and Washington, though
on a smaller scale. 

Riders remained skeptical. “They said corn syrup was harmless,” said
Mark Cepeda, 27, rubbing his rotund midsection. “And look at this.” 

Moments earlier, he had been startled to find a black, rectangular
gas-detection box beneath a platform bench at Penn Station. “They say if
you see something, say something,” he said, his voice rising. “I see a
black box underneath a chair.” 

Some riders planned to opt out of the subway system while the test was
conducted, electing to walk, drive or use the city’s new bike-sharing
system instead. 

Related:
Implications of early menopause in women exposed to perfluorocarbons.
 

One man joked on Twitter that he would “see y’all at the class-action lawsuit 10 years from now.”


Several made flatulence jokes about the better-known gas of the subway system. 

Especially mystifying to most riders was the specter of a scent-free
addition to the subway. Many have come to accept the devils they know:
the sweat-stained flannel shirt of a neighboring rider, sticking to his
armpits; the soggy paper McDonald’s bag at Times Square station —
crushed but, as any passer-by can attest, not empty; whatever was rising
from the two black garbage bags above the L train at Sixth Avenue on
Tuesday, beside a workers-only room. 

“You have rat poop, regular poop, dog poop,” said Michael Polanco, 20,
waiting for a train at Bryant Park station. “I don’t think an odorless
gas will make much of a difference.” 

But a force without a footprint — neither seen, nor smelled — seemed to unsettle New Yorkers.

“Let’s turn New York City into a huge dome of lab rats,” mused Michelle Hernandez, 22, from Bushwick, Brooklyn. 

Julian Naderer, 22, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, said the test called to mind the case of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed information about government surveillance programs. 

With a gas undetectable to the public, safety “is a question of trust,”
he said. “I’m not just going to believe what I hear.” 

Mr. Polanco was one of the few supporters of the study, arguing that its
findings could prove helpful to the Police Department’s
counterterrorism work. But even he seemed wary of the subway toxins on
Tuesday. 

As he bade farewell to board a train at 42nd Street, Mr. Polanco
declined a handshake, extending his left fist instead for a cautious
bump.