Environment

The health effects of living near highways are well-documented. But new research suggests there’s a particular element of vehicle exhaust that may be the most harmful to human health.

Doug Brugge is a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine. For the past few years, Brugge’s Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health Study has tested pollution — focusing on the minuscule ultrafine particles — in and around Boston near highways. He’s found that increased exposure to these particles is correlated with several cardiovascular diseases.

Brugge was in Louisville earlier this week for a lecture sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation. I met him in downtown near one of the city’s many interstate highways. Listen to our conversation in the player above.

Why look specifically at ultrafine particles?

“We thought they were a good candidate for being a source of health effects. Ultrafine particles are elevated right near heavy traffic, they tend to drop off pretty rapidly with distance, so that would explain why people who are closer would have more effect. So we did very extensive research to figure out what people’s exposures were, assigned them exposures and then, after doing all of that, found that people who had higher exposure to the ultrafine particles also had higher levels of a blood marker that indicates risk of cardiovascular outcomes.”

So, what if you live or work right by a highway?

Brugge says building filtration and ventilation systems do help cut down on the number of ultrafine particles that make their way from the tailpipe to indoor air. But his team has been trying to install systems at some private homes near highways, and have found they aren’t as effective at cutting down on the pollution as he’d hope.

Other than retroactively installing these systems, Brugge said there are legislative measures finding success in some places to keep people from building near roads in the first place.

“I think the kinds of legislation in California and also that we’re introducing in Massachusetts that restricts construction near roadways, requires filtration or good ventilation systems in housing that’s near busy roadways, I think that is another route we could go,” he said.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.