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On The Streets Of Somerville, An RV On A Mission

(Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

It may look like it, but Jeff Trull and Allison St. Vincent are not on your average road trip. The two are part of an air pollution research project that's taking place in a giant RV -- that never leaves Somerville. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — Air pollution is a big problem in some places near Boston. In fact, Somerville has some of the highest rates of lung cancer and heart attack deaths in the state, and some researchers think that’s partly due to poor air quality caused by highways.

So Somerville and two Boston neighborhoods are part of an air pollution research project that’s taking place in a giant RV.


Jeff Trull is behind the wheel of a massive camper with green curtains and beige carpeting and $140,000 worth of scientific equipment inside. It’s a laboratory on wheels. Each week, he and another Tufts University graduate student, whom he calls his “co-pilot,” drive this RV up and down the streets of Somerville collecting pollution data.

“The toughest part,” Trull says, “is that when we do a morning sampling we have to get to the RV at 4:30 a.m., so we get up pretty early on those days.”

And then they drive the same route over and over again — very, very slowly.

Why? Because they’re measuring air quality at all hours of the day so that they can track how pollution levels change with different traffic volumes and wind speeds.

The RV is fitted with (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

The RV functions as a laboratory on wheels, fitted with $140,000 in scientific equipment. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Air pollution is a big problem in the city. In fact, Somerville has some of the highest rates of lung cancer and heart attack deaths in the state, and some researchers think that’s partly due to poor air quality caused by highways.

“I know all the streets, all the turns in my head now,” Trull says. “By the end of day,” he jokes, “you’re like, I’ve got to get out of here!”

Tufts is also studying how air quality changes as you move toward and away from the highway. The university is doing the research with several community groups that want to know if poor air quality is causing health problems for people who live near highways.

They’re most interested in something called ultrafine particles. Those are the smallest pollutants that come out of tailpipes.

(Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

To collect pollution data, Jeff Trull drives the same route over and over -- at nine miles an hour. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

“The ultrafine particles are invisible and they’re undetectable to the senses,” says Bart Laws, a medical sociologist at Tufts Medical Center who is involved in the air pollution project.

Laws, who also works with a Boston organization called the Disparities Action Network, which works to improve racial and ethnic access to health care, says ultrafine particles should be federally regulated, just as many other vehicle emissions are.

“When you inhale them, they’re so small that they go right through the lungs and into the bloodstream,” Laws says. “There’s even evidence that they can enter cells.”

Laws says ultrafine particles could be to blame for some of the health problems in communities near freeways.

“Lung cancer, asthma — all that happens,” he says. “But really the most important health effect is an elevated risk of heart attack associated with exposure to pollution near the highway.”

Wig Zamore, a community organizer who’s been with the Tufts air pollution project from the start, is standing near Interstate 93, which is right near an after-school activity center at Mystic Public Housing, a subsidized housing complex in Somerville. Zamore expects the air pollution study to show that putting even a little more distance between highways and people can dramatically cut down on health problems.

“If you’re playing 10 feet from the highway — see, this housing literally has about a four-foot sidewalk between it and 170,000 vehicles a day,” Zamore says, pointing to Interstate 93. “But if you move 300 feet away, that can make a measurable difference.”

Courtesy of John Durant/Tufts University

CLICK TO ENLARGE (Courtesy of John Durant/Tufts University)

Once Tufts collects a year’s worth of pollution and medical data in Somerville, it will do the same work in Chinatown and South Boston. Those neighborhoods are also close to Interstate 93, and to the Mass Turnpike. And they also have health problems, such as Chinatown’s high asthma rates.

Back in the RV, Jeff Trull notes that the camper’s pollution-measuring devices show higher volumes of vehicle emissions near Mystic Public Housing and near other homes near the highway.

“The pollution levels are multiple times higher right around here,” he says, “and you’re breathing this in every morning, afternoon and night.”

After a full hour behind the wheel, Trull finally finishes his first nine miles. He plans to continue driving his research route for another five hours. That means just five more times around the neighborhood to go — at nine miles an hour.

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  • David B.

    To not mention that there are other, more likely wide spread factors that lead to higher lung cancer and blood pressure rates for Somerville is a bit irresponsible. Somerville has long been full of smokers and drinkers. These rates might be higher right next to I-93, but that is not to say that pollution is the cause of higher rates of these diseases throughout the city of Somerville. Of course, rents are always cheaper right next to highways, and overall wellness of people living near highways is hard to gauge in part because of other factors related to health and economics.

  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com akilez

    Yes smoking and drinking causes illnesses. Do you know how many people who doesn’t drink or smoke in Somerville Mr. David B it is not irresponsible for scientist to conduct test for the better of the people of somerville. There are thousands of cars that passes 95 each day and please check the bridges of Somerville. You will see dark stain on the cement walls on the bridge near Autzone.

  • Amanda Linehan

    I think it’s a little appalling that the only comments so far have made blanket statements about Somerville being “full” of drinkers and smokers. Grow up, folks!

    I found this article startling, because I’ve lived in Somerville for about three years now — love the sense of community and the families we’ve gotten to know — but my husband and I both could never figure out why our asthma and allergies have gotten progressively worse each year we’ve lived in the city. We live in Winter Hill, a couple miles probably from Route 93, but our house fronts on an intersection where cars and MBTA buses back up and idle exhaust into our first-floor windows all day and night. It’s not an inexpensive apartment, and like all of Somerville we enjoy the quick access to public transit and the ability to work in downtown Boston that affords. But at what price? I could never in good conscience have kids unless I knew the pollution was low, but the only affordable family-sized apartments left in Somerville are in Ten Hills or East Somerville — both neighborhoods that bear the brunt of major roadways and the resulting pollution.

  • http://nowebsite Elizabeth J.Morris

    I was born and raised in Somerville, MA, and even lived there for a few years after I married before moving to Billerica, MA. At one time 12 square mile Somerville had 100,000 residents and was one of the most highly populated areas in the world. My father and his before him was born and raised and lived in Somerville, My great grandfather worked in printing and had health problems and early death due probably to benzene poisoning. My
    Dad died of prostate cancer at age 85 and my Mom had Alzheimer’s for 26 years and died a couple days shy of her 89th birthday. We had a friend who died at 98 and lived many many years in Somerville and another 101 at death the same. There were a lot of smokers in Somerivlle, myself included. Many like myself have long since quit. Causes of death are related to behavior as well as environment so it would be well to determine the issue of smokers and drinkers and d=rug use in the city along with the air pollution. Where may the public learn the results of this testing? I for one am very interested.

  • http://somervillestep.org Wig Zamore

    Commenters are absolutely right that smoking, employment, socio-economic and other factors must be considered when undertaking environmental health studies, including research on highway pollution gradients and associated neighborhood health impacts. Life-long heavy smoking has more impact on cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer mortality than does living next to a busy highway.
    Nevertheless, the best transportation occupational studies and the best near highway environmental health studies, after accounting for smoking and other confounders, find that those most exposed to high volumes of fresh mobile pollution may have 50% to 100% higher risk of mortality due to heart attack and lung cancer, the two leading causes of death in the US. Other cardiovascular diseases, COPD, asthma, lung function, cognitive function, and adverse birth outcomes may also be related to or exacerbated by exposure to large sources of fresh mobile pollution.
    This is a major concern because roughly 9% of the US population and 18% of the rental population live within a few hundred meters of a busy roadway, diesel rail corridor, port or airport. While heavy smokers now comprise a small proportion of any community, the mortality and morbidity risks to a near highway neighborhood are calculated on 100% of that population. Some people are more affected and others less. These impacts are generally not self-imposed. More often people unknowingly expose themselves and their families through close and prolonged proximity to regional transportation facilities.
    The CAFEH study, which includes the mobile lab that Sacha Pfeiffer reported on, is a 5-year NIH study led by Tufts University and its local community partners. Final study outcomes are roughly 4 years away. However, if desired, you can see a little bit more on this topic by looking at the “3 minute” presentation I made to EPA and the PM Panel of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year in Chapel Hill, NC during their review of the first Draft Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter.
    You can download different versions from the Somerville STEP web-site and view it at your leisure:
    http://www.somervillestep.org/2009/04/steps_wig_zamor_2.html
    The PowerPoint is higher resolution than the EPA PDF and only slightly larger.
    One final note – the main reason for investigating near highway air pollution neighborhood health impacts is not to scare people , but to more fully document the strength of the associations and to understand the nature of the relationships fully enough that practical prevention, precautions and mitigation can be implemented through better informed and cost effective public policy.
    Regards, Wig Zamore

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