Is Asbestos in Old Subway Cars?

New York's MTA subway car

The Metropolitan Transit Authority serves New York City’s seven million residents daily through its massive system of buses and subways. Over the course of the past decade, a total of 2,580 subway cars retired from the MTA have been submerged off the coasts of states such as Delaware and New Jersey, where they are being used to create artificial reefs.

The subway cars were stripped of elements that float and disintegrate, and were cleaned before being cast into the ocean. Once these cars have settled, they serve as habitats for fish and other marine life.

Should We Be Worried?

Many of the cars contain some levels of asbestos. As a result, many people have concerns about the health dangers the artificial reefs could pose to the public. Asbestos is known to cause dangerous diseases to humans including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Fish and Wildlife, argues that asbestos fibers are not likely to be released from the subway cars, as they are enclosed within the cars. In addition, marine growth that will naturally occur on the surfaces of the cars is predicted to limit discharge of asbestos fibers. 

Arguably, the asbestos fibers in the subway cars are in a non-friable state, meaning that they are not easily broken apart. Consequently, as long as the fibers are not disturbed, they are considered relatively harmless.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection advised the public that in the unexpected event of asbestos fibers being released from the retired cars, the amounts would not be abundant enough to cause harm to fish. Also, it is not expected that asbestos fibers would enter into the food chain.

The heft, durability, and the spaciousness of the subway cars makes them very useful for artificial reefs. Proponents of the project feel that this is a resourceful and productive answer to subway disposal needs and risks from asbestos appear to be minimal.