Boston traffic is re-routed from the Ted Williams tunnel during rush hour in Boston, July 11, 2006

Tufts researchers study the hazards of highway pollution

A Tufts research team, working with more than eight community partners, has found a relationship between air pollutants emanating from highways and cardiovascular health in surrounding communities, and has also explored ways to mitigate exposure at the levels of policy and practice.

Since its initiation in 2008, the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health Study (CAFEH) has collected data and examined air pollution near highways in four different communities in the Boston area, including Somerville, Dorchester, South Boston and Chinatown, according to the official CAFEH website.

According to CAFEH Co-chair Doug Brugge, who is a professor of public health and family medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine, the goal of the study was to examine the relationship between air pollution and the health effects on individuals living next to major highways.

“The air pollutants that we are most interested in are something called ultrafine particles,” Brugge said. “There tend to be more of these particles when you are close to a highway or an intersection.”

The study aimed to find a correlation between the presence of these particles and signs of potential health problems.

“The goal of the study was to test whether there was an association between the air pollution level and … [the] biomarkers in the blood that indicate a systemic inflammation, which is a factor proved for cardiovascular disease,” Brugge said.

Prompted by a group of concerned citizens of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), the CAFEH received support from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at an early stage to develop a proposal, which led to a multi-million dollar federal grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), according to Brugge.

Co-chair of the CAFEH and STEP President Ellin Reisner talked about the study’s innovative approach: looking at health impacts in conjunction with the pollution levels.

“We had one of our [researchers take] the data about the exposure location, how close the exposure location was, and find an individual to participate in the study,” Reisner said. “We have some really unique data about individual people’s exposure based on where they live, and the time they spent at home in these areas.”

To obtain data about the air pollution levels in different neighborhoods, the study used a multi-monitoring platform — a van equipped with seven different monitors to measure pollutants, including carbon dioxide, according to Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering John Durant.

“We’ve been driving that around four different communities in the Boston area to try to get a picture of what patterns of pollutions look like near the major roadways,” Durant said.

Measurements were taken throughout the week at a variety of times to provide both accurate information about present pollution levels and predictive models.

“We [took measurements] on different days of the week, different times of the day and different seasons of the year to get the full comprehension of pollution condition throughout the year,” Durant said. “We use that data to try to develop models that will allow us to predict pollution levels for the times we are actually not monitoring.”

During the three years of data collection, one of Durant’s main challenges was the constantly-changing wind in the Boston area.

“The challenge was [that] the degree of mixing is really hard to characterize because the wind in the Boston area is constantly changing,” Durant said. “[It is] hard to contain it because you need to adjust your monitoring programming to make sure that you capture the different wind directions.”

As a community-based participatory research organization, the CAFEH recruited people who live both close to the highway and far away from it to participate in the survey. It obtained other information from the participant as well, including a blood sample and their blood pressure, height and weight, according to Brugge.

The CAFEH has worked with more than eight partners from its focus communities, including the Chinatown Resident Association and Boston Public Health Commission, according to the CAFEH website. Reisner believes that the community partners have been a crucial part of the study.

“The community partners implement very important roles in helping to set the policies for the study, and as part of the steering committee, helping in [recruiting] participants in the study, and community outreach and education,” she said.

Concerned about advancing the understanding of the health risks of highway pollutions, the CAFEH team has been working closely with policymakers to provide recommendations on reducing exposure.

“One of the main things we did last May was we had a charrette that took a proposed development near [the] Stop & Shop in Somerville, and one proposed construction of a school in Chinatown, right over the highways near South Station, and [looked] at the health impact of [those developments], and the design issue and the land usage issue for both of the sites,” Reisner said. “And we invited architects, planners and community people to come and work together, and think about ways to reduce exposure in a location like that.”

According to Brugge, a report for the charrette will be released on Feb. 25, including recommendations such as adding filtering systems and sound barriers.

Reisner talked about other measures that the study will recommend.

“We are recommending using triple-glazed windows for people whose houses face the highway,” Reisner said. “We are [also] saying to people it is not a good idea to do active transportation like riding a bicycle or running near the highways during rush hours.”

In order to address community-level policies and practices, the CAFEH and the Housing Department of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development of Somerville have received a grant of $675,000 from the Kresge Foundation “aimed at ways to deal with the health risks to Somerville residents from Route 93 in Somerville,” according to a December article in the Somerville Times.

According to Reisner, the work with the City of Somerville to address the issue looks hopeful, as they have received strong support from the city government.

“A good thing is [that] the city of Somerville is very interested in this issue and trying to figure out ways to do this — they have been open to us mak[ing] some recommendations, we go to planning board meetings and weigh the issue with developers,” Reisner said.

Despite the work and challenges that the study has entailed, Reisner believes it is important because it provides guidance for regulations.

“Right now near-highway pollution is not regulated by federal government or state government … people can build homes, schools and hospitals on highways without thinking about what is the effect on people’s health,” she said.

Reisner pointed to the example of California’s air resource board, which has made an effort to make the dangers of highway pollution better known.

“They don’t have a legal standing … but they have guidance there to say why it’s really not a good thing to do,” she said. “We don’t even have that in Massachusetts right now.”

She hopes that the CAFEH’s findings will help move Massachusetts toward a solution.

“Our goal is to try to build the awareness of the impact and try to reduce exposure,” Reisner added. “From a land usage and design perspective, there are things people can do to change the equation of how much exposure they have.”

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