UPDATED 11/8/10 4:45 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – Sen. Dick Durbin on Monday sent letters to the heads of several agencies asking them to review the findings of a recent investigative report which showed that Metra commuters and workers may be exposed to excessively high levels of diesel soot.

The letters were sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

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“Today, I am calling on Metra, Amtrak and federal and state officials to review and respond to these findings and to take the steps necessary to ensure the air on and around our passenger trains is safe to breathe. It is absolutely critical that we limit the risk of adverse health effects for the Chicago region’s commuters and workers,” Durbin said in the release. “I was happy to hear that Metra has already organized a meeting with key state and local agencies tomorrow on this subject.”

Durbin made the request Monday in response to reports lingering diesel soot increases as Metra commuters walk deeper into Union Station or the Ogilvie Transportation Center. The Chicago Tribune reported that pollution levels are higher on platforms, where diesel exhaust hover between Metra trains. Tests conducted for the Tribune also found as a train pulls out of the station, the air trapped inside passenger cars contain levels of diesel soot up to 72 times higher than on streets outside.

At a Monday news conference, Durbin acknowledged the old 1970s-era trains can’t be replaced overnight. But he says commuter lines like Metra recently received federal grants to improve ventilation and to buy remote-control devices to shut off the trains instead of having them idle eight hours a day.

“We can reduce the fuel consumption of the diesel engines by 40 percent with these remote control devices,” Durbin said.

But a complete overhaul of commuter trains and stations across the country would cost many billions of dollars at a time when incoming Republican lawmakers vow to cut spending.

Joel Africk, president of the Respiratory Health Association, said the cost would be worth it.

“The question is how much you value your health,” he said.

Diesel exhaust contains many air pollutants, and has been linked to health problems such as cancer, heart attacks, respiratory diseases, diabetes and brain damage.

For years, Bruce Bendix and many other commuters had been told public transportation like Metra was good for the environment.

“If you take the car, you think about the car fumes, but taking the train you think is a more environmentally benign way to travel,” he told CBS 2’s Jim Williams. “So it’s surprising.”

Durbin also requested that the EPA review include an analysis of other sources of particulate air pollution, such as coal-fired power plants, heavy machinery and automobile and truck traffic, the release said.

The EPA has designated the Chicago area a “non-attainment” area, which means air pollution levels persistently exceed federal air quality standards.

Durbin called on the federal agencies to conduct an immediate inter-agency review which would include recommending steps necessary to reduce pollution from rail traffic in Northeastern Illinois.

Last week, the FTA awarded the Illinois Department of Transportation a $341,000 grant funded by a grant program created in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to install automatic shut-down and start-up systems in 27 locomotives in the Metra fleet, the release said.

Metra, which intends to use the funding to retrofit locomotives operating in their train yards, estimates that by shutting down instead of idling the locomotives, the automatic systems could save an estimated 800,000 gallons of diesel fuel and reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 80,000 tons per year, according to the release.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

(TM and © Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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