On The Streets Of Somerville, An RV On A Mission

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(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)

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.

This program aired on October 19, 2009.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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