August 2008

Watching What We Breathe

Impact of highway pollution on Boston-area neighborhoods, including Somerville and Chinatown, is focus of new research

Living in a neighborhood close to a major highway may expose residents to higher than average pollution rates, but up until now, no one has known for sure.

That's about to change, though, as Tufts researchers team up with five Boston-area community groups to find the answer, aided by a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. The scientists will focus on Somerville, Mass., Boston's Chinatown, and two other communities that will be chosen soon.

"Most of the studies to date examined regional effects of pollution," says Doug Brugge, associate professor of public health and family medicine. "Only recently has research begun to suggest that highly concentrated local sources, such as highways, may be even more hazardous." Photo: Perry Kroll/iStock

A steering committee of representatives from five community groups will lead the research in collaboration with principal investigator Doug Brugge, director of the Tufts Community Research Center at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

The Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership initially approached Brugge, an associate professor in the School of Medicine's department of public health and family medicine, about the impact of highway pollution on Somerville neighborhoods next to Interstate 93, a major highway leading in and out of Boston.

Meeting with other communities adjacent to major highways, a literature review by Tufts faculty and more recent pilot studies of Somerville's I-93 pollution all set the foundation for this grant, says Wig Zamore of the Somerville Partnership. "We feel fortunate to be included in this scientific effort to learn more about these understudied exposures and to help better define their most serious impacts."

By actively engaging the Boston and Somerville communities, the Tufts investigators predict the study will yield results that more traditional research methods would not achieve.

As part of the study, participants will be asked to submit blood samples to be tested for evidence of heart and lung disease. "Many people live close to I-93 and I-95, and they may well be exposed to these tiny particles, but they aren't aware of it," says Bart Laws, senior investigator at the Latin American Health Institute, another of the participating groups. "The particles are invisible and odorless."

The ultrafine particulates, as they are known, have been shown to be present at higher levels close to highways, notes Brugge.

Additionally, co-investigators from the Tufts School of Engineering plan to outfit a van with air-monitoring instrumentation that can measure concentrations of a variety of chemical pollutants. John Durant, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will lead that effort.

"Pollution levels are highest on the highway and gradually decrease to background levels as they drift away from the cars on the road," says Brugge. "The air-monitoring van will measure pollution levels within 200 to 300 meters of highways in communities where most of the residents can see the highway from their homes."

In Boston, both I-93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike border Chinatown. "Some residents have lived at the junction of two major highways for decades," says Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, another study participant. "What does it mean for the long-term health of Chinatown residents, and what are the implications for future development and planning for our community? These are some of the questions we hope this study can help us to explore."

Brugge says there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence that shows ambient pollution, even at levels below those set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is harmful to health.

"Most of the studies to date examined regional effects of pollution," he notes. "Only recently has research begun to suggest that highly concentrated local sources, such as highways, may be even more hazardous. To our knowledge, much of the work to date on near-highway exposures and health has come from southern California, so the project represents an expansion to the northeastern United States."

Work on the project began on June 13, and preliminary results are not expected for several years. Brugge notes that other pilot studies addressing the issue of exposure near highways, not part of the new grant, are currently in the works. Results from those studies should be available later this year or next year.

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