Health Issues

New highway pollution and health study in Somerville gets funding

Tufts University researchers and five Boston-area community groups (including STEP) received a 5-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the health effects of pollution exposure in neighborhoods adjacent to major highways.

NIH Funds Highway Pollution & Health Study in Boston, Somerville (original article)
BOSTON (June 19, 2008) ─ Tufts University researchers and five Boston-area
community groups received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to
study the health effects of pollution exposure in neighborhoods adjacent to
major highways. The 5-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Institute
of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) will fund a study of four
communities, including Boston’s Chinatown and Somerville, MA.
A steering committee comprised of representatives from the Somerville
Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), the Latin American Health
Institute, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Committee for Boston
Public Housing and the Chinatown Resident Association will lead the research
in collaboration with principal investigator Doug Brugge, PhD. Brugge,
director of the Tufts Community Research Center at the Jonathan M. Tisch
College of Citizenship, is an associate professor in the Department of
Public Health and Family Medicine at the Tufts University School of
STEP initially approached Brugge about the impact of highway pollution on
Somerville neighborhoods next to Interstate 93 – the major highway leading
in and out of Boston. “Meeting with other communities in the same situation,
a literature review by Tufts faculty and more recent pilot studies on
Somerville’s I-93 pollution all set the foundation for the great leap
forward provided by this NIEHS grant,” says Wig Zamore of STEP. “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, to be known as the Community Assessment of Freeway
Exposure and Health (CAFEH), participants will be asked to submit written
surveys and 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, PhD, senior investigator at the Latin American Health Institute. “The
particles are invisible and odorless.”
Additionally, co-investigators from Tufts’ School of Engineering plan to
outfit a van with air monitoring instrumentation that can measure
concentrations of a variety of chemical pollutants. “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
In Boston, both I-93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) 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. “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 United States
Environmental Protection Agency, is harmful to health. “Most of the studies
to date examine regional effects of pollution,” Brugge says. “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.”

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