Effects of Simulated ‘Dirty Bomb’ on NYC Subway, Streets Studied by City Tech and Other Students, Brookhaven Lab and NYPD

New York City College of Technology (City Tech) was at the hub of the largest field study of its kind investigating how airborne contaminants disperse in a dense, complex, urban-coastal environment like New York City.

Ninety students from ten universities including The City University of New York (CUNY) participated in this cutting-edge research as summer interns on three days in July 2013, measuring and helping to model the atmospheric concentrations of a simulated “dirty bomb’s” plume above and below the ground in various locations in the city. Forty of the students were from City Tech.

Risks posed by airborne contaminants launched by chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) weapons as they are dispersed in the atmosphere and in New York City’s subway system were assessed. Data the students collected will be used to optimize emergency response following an intentional or accidental release of hazardous materials and refine evacuation or other responses in the event of an emergency.

The Subway-Surface Air Flow Exchange (S-SAFE), as the project is formally known, was commissioned by the NYPD and funded through a $3.4 million Department of Homeland Security Transit Security Grant. Undergraduate students, field meteorologists and engineers, and researchers from Argonne and Los Alamos National Laboratories supported Brookhaven National Laboratory scientists as they tracked the movement of perfluorocarbon tracer gases (PFTs) above and below ground in the city. PFTs present no health or environmental hazard. They are used in medical applications including eye surgeries and artificial breathing systems.

Approximately 200 sampling devices were deployed by CUNY students and others involved in the study. Weather conditions determined which days were selected for the tests. The research was conducted on three days during daylight hours in parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan from 96th Street to the Battery. There was zero impact on commuting and other public activity.

According to one of the project team captains, Charlyne Sainrose, a biology major at Long Island University/Brooklyn Campus, the interns’ day began at 5:30 a.m. when the NYPD delivered the sampling equipment on site. After the tracer gases were released, the interns used iPads and iPhones to record data on the dispersion every 15 minutes between 8:00 and 9:30 a.m., then every 30 minutes between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., and every hour between noon and 2:00 p.m.

“It was very gratifying to be part of this project,” said Sainrose, who lives in Mill Basin and plans to become an OB/GYN medical doctor. Her group of six students was assigned to monitor the Times Square, Union Square and Canal Street areas of Manhattan. “The data we collected will help the NYPD figure out where to put sensors to monitor the city’s air in case of an emergency.”

Echoing Sainrose’s remarks, City Tech liberal arts major Saba Jaleel said that it meant a lot to her to participate in a project to make New York City safer. “I also learned the value of teamwork and practiced my communication skills when we had to explain to the public what we were doing,” said the Ridgewood, Queens, resident.

For José Rivera, a biomedical informatics student at City Tech, the internship was a chance to explore areas of science with which he wasn’t that familiar. “The research opened my eyes to the field of geoscience, specifically the vast array of issues facing the world, including terrorism, and how scientists, like those at Brookhaven Lab, are trying to solve them,” explained the junior, who lives in Flatbush.

“Brookhaven Lab is a world leader in the use of tracer gases to study airflow, and we are excited about this opportunity to apply that expertise to enhancing the safety of New York City residents and emergency responders,” said Brookhaven Lab Director Doon Gibbs.

The project was supervised by the Department of Homeland Security, The Department of Energy, the Brookhaven National Laboratory, the NYC Police Department (NYPD) and the NYC Office of Emergency Management. Two City Tech professors, Dr. Reginald Blake and Dr. Janet Liou-Mark, were co-Project Coordinators, and Dr. Blake was also a Team Leader for the project.

”This S-SAFE geoscience internship is an excellent example of service learning,” said Professor Blake, “The internship afforded students the opportunity to not only learn about the geosciences, but also to participate at the highest levels in helping to use that knowledge to make New York City safer for all its 8.25 million residents.”

“As educators, our primary responsibility to our students is dual-pronged: to educate them and then to create opportunities for them to exercise that education,” said Professor Liou-Mark. “That is what this special project achieved.”

Together with the assistance of Ms. Laura Yuen-Lau and Professor Viviana Vladutescu, this City Tech team synergized the S-SAFE project with Dr. Blake’s National Science Foundation’s Opportunities for Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences grant and created a comprehensive geoscience internship experience for the 90 interns.

In addition to the air dispersion sampling activities in the field, the internship included geoscience workshops by expert geoscientists, oral and poster presentations by the students, and the creation of 21 informational brochures about 21 different geoscience topics such as fracking, hurricanes, heat waves, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. The brochures were used to produce a comprehensive report on various geoscience phenomena. This was a critical component of the internship, for it not only raised the students’ awareness to the geosciences, but it also provided them the opportunity to study and to produce products about many aspects of the geosciences. To read the report, visit http://facultycommons.citytech.cuny.edu/oedg/files/Brooklyn-National-Laboratory-Information-Brochure-2013.pdf. The internship program underwent both formative and summative assessments, and it was found to be highly successful in raising the students’ awareness and knowledge of the geosciences.

A previous airflow study on the streets of New York City was conducted in Manhattan in 2005, and through Dr. Blake’s affiliation with the Brookhaven National Laboratory, City Tech student interns also participated in that project.