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May 04, 2015

In 2012 attorney Deirdre Hosler bought a house in East Somerville near Interstate 93.  A working woman who volunteers around her neighborhood, Hosler is like so many of us in Massachusetts – except for one thing. There is soot from the highway on her house and inside it, too.  This isn’t just an eyesore.  Highway pollution is dangerous in ways most of us haven’t even heard about.

Researchers in North America and Europe have learned that people who live within about 500 feet of busy roadway pollution sources may face risks of premature death from heart disease and lung cancer that are 50% to 100% higher than similar citizens who live further away. Relative risk of childhood asthma is equally elevated and of autism disorders may be even higher.

The research suggests that the problem may be ultrafine particles - super tiny, toxic pollution generated by motor vehicles and found in high concentrations under certain conditions near heavy traffic. Our research team looked at a population in Somerville and showed that exposure to ultrafine particles was associated with elevated blood biomarkers.  These biomarkers are well established to predict likelihood of having future heart attacks and strokes, putting near highway residents like Deirdre at risk.

It is important to understand how transportation pollution impacts the health of people who live, work, go to school and exercise nearby.  Ultrafine particles can get inside of buildings – and people.  Those who live within 500 feet of heavily travelled highways appear to be most at risk. Children who go to school within that zone are a particular concern.  This concern has led to installation of special air filtration in schools next to freeways in California.

There are currently no federal or state policies in the US, outside of California, which protect exposed residents and neighborhoods.  Deirdre says she sees this as an environmental justice issue that deserves more attention.  She’s right. Low income residents and racial minorities are more likely to live near highways and, therefore, are more likely to be exposed to pollution from traffic

People are taking action. Researchers, professional designers, advocates, and local government agencies from Somerville, Chinatown and greater Boston have identified a set of protective measures.  In a recent report, we list several design and zoning practices that may reduce exposures and protect residents (https://sites.tufts.edu/cafeh/files/2011/10/CAFEH-Report-Final-2-26-15-hi-res.pdf).  Here, for example, are several that appear promising:

  1. 1.  Buildings near busy roadways should be equipped with highquality, well-maintained indoor air filters. Not all air filters can do the job.
  2. 2.  New schools andresidences, where possible, should be built more than 500 feet away from highways and other sources of heavy traffic.
  3. 3.  Architects should place air intake vents on buildings asfar away from traffic as possible.
  4. 4.  Parks and active travel locations, for example bicyclelanes, should be protected from heavy trafficexposures to the greatest extentpossible.

In the long run, federal regulators will need a national standard to reduce the health risks of ultrafine particles but architects and planners can take these actions now.  People like Deirdre, so many residents of Somerville, and other Massachusetts residents who live close to highways are counting on it.    

Doug Brugge is a professor of public health at the Tufts University School of Medicine, and Wig Zamore is an activist and environmental health researcher with the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership.

Doug Brugge, Professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, dbrugge@aol.com

Wig Zamore, Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), wigzamore@gmail.com , 617-625-5630

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