Transportation and health: living near highways is a health risk

There have been several articles recently about the impact of modes of transportation on  health; for example, car drivers have higher BMIs, on average, than bikers and public transit riders (see WBUR’s recent series on traffic).  But, there has been less focus on the impact of vehicle pollution on the health of city dwellers. I just learned of a study in this area at a Mass DOT planning meeting today. One of the speakers, a Tufts researcher who was advocating for an extension of the Green Line train to Medford, discussed the results of a  Tufts / Boston University study on the higher health risks present in populations living close to highways.

The Boston Globe wrote about this research in April of this year: “New Evidence of the Dangers of Living near Highways”. The study looked at the blood chemistry of individuals living close to I-93 and the Mass Turnpike to those living half a mile away from these highways. Results show that individuals living within 500 feet of a highway have higher levels of three chemicals that are associated with heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. The areas studied were:Chinatown, Dorchester, Sommerville and Medford. One of the immediate actions being taken following this study is the migration of a park in Chinatown. Real estate developers and architects who are learning about these issues are talking about improving air filtration systems.

Mitigating the effects of pollution is important in the short-run, but will not address the root cause of the issue. We need to reduce car traffic coming into the city with real alternatives to gas-powered car commutes: more efficient public transportation, infrastructure for electric vehicles, and greenways that connect suburbs to city centers. Much work is already underway fortunately (for example, the proposed rail trail connecting Watertown to Cambridge) but transportation projects take a long time and current infrastructure often takes priority. We badly need transportation leaders who can accelerate public transportation improvement and greenway projects.

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