Highway Pollution Impacts Poor, Immigrants

Contributing Reporters on this Newscast:

Somerville, MA, April 8, 2014 – Because of where they live, many of the city’s lower income and immigrant families are disproportionately at risk of contracting air pollution-related diseases. A recent Tufts study notes that air quality drops in the areas nearer to Route 93, the same areas with two of the city’s affordable housing developments and with neighborhoods that have more reasonable rents and home prices.

Launched five years ago with $2.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) study has been examining pollution near highways in Somerville, Chinatown, Dorchester and South Boston. Among other results thus far, CAFEH found that pollution from Route 93 is worse between 6 am and 8 am.

“If you live close to a highway, it may be advisable to sleep with windows closed to avoid breathing in air from the outside during the early morning when UFP (ultrafine particle) levels are highest,” a CAFEH newsletter recommended. “Likewise, if you jog or exercise in the early morning, it might be best to do so away from the highway.”

For six years, Tufts University Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine Doug Brugge has been overseeing the project, which includes measuring air pollution by counting “ultrafine particles.”

“Ultrafine particles are very, very tiny particles, liquid or solid, suspended in the air,” Brugge told Somerville Neighborhood News. “There’s a wide range of health effects that have been associated with proximity to heavy traffic.”

A series studies have shown that people living near highways like Route 93 are at risk for diseases like heart disease, asthma, and even autism, the professor noted.

On a recent swing through Somerville, the CAFEH van measured the particles near the Route 93 and near the Mystic River Apartments.

“Over here we were at 10,000, but over here we’re at 40,000, 60,000, sometimes we get peaks of 80,000 and a little over 100,000 particles per cubic centimeter, so a lot of particles in a very small space,” Matt Simon, a CAFEH researcher, noted as he pointed to a screen covered by jagged peaks.

Wig Zamore, researcher and member of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, is worried. While every big city faces similar challenges, it is almost always the poor who live in neighborhoods with the worst environmental conditions, he noted.

“Some neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods with density of recent immigrants, tend to be the neighborhoods that bare the pollution burden and the health burden of the regional transportation systems, the highways and the diesel rail,” he said. “Our largest public housing project, Mystic River Apartments, [is] literally a sidewalk away from 200,000 vehicles a day.” .

Kawsar Jahan lives at Mystic River Apartments her four children. As manager of Shape Up Somerville’s Mobile Farmers Market, she is interested in healthy living for herself and her family.

Sitting in her apartment surrounded by pictures of her children, Jahan confirmed Zamore’s claims. Financial barriers keep her out of other places in Somerville.

“I don’t think I could live [in Somerville] other than this house,” Jahan revealed.