Tufts to Research Air Quality in City’s Affordable Housing

tuftsPhoto by Abbie Gruskin.

Researchers from Tufts University will spend the next three years studying the air quality inside affordable housing built near busy roads in Somerville.

The study will focus on Route 28, Route 38, and McGrath Highway, according to John Durant, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Tufts. The study aims to understand how to maximize comfort and air quality through air filtration and ventilation.

Cities have been under pressure to develop empty parcels of land or replace existing buildings near busy roadways with housing, Durant says. But when those new developments are used for affordable housing, concerns surrounding environmental justice arise.

“The main risk, from the standpoint of our study, is pollution that’s coming out of cars and trucks,” Durant says. “And there’s a variety of different combustion byproducts that are present there, the principal one is ultrafine particles.”

These miniscule particles can enter a unit from a variety of places, including underneath doors and through open windows. The team will also look at larger particles, carbon dioxide, black carbon, and nitrogen dioxide.

He says these pollutants can “cause a variety of health impacts,” but the study itself will not examine residents’ health.

“These are health effects that take years, and years, and years develop and worsen,” Durant says. “So the focus on residential housing makes a lot of sense, because people typically spend years of their life in these units.”

The team will study the air quality and the efficiency of HVAC and air filtration systems in the selected buildings. It will also look at how much outside air is entering each unit and how quickly the air circulates through each unit.

“We’re just trying to make sure that the housing that’s built there is optimized such that residents are not exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollution,” Durant says. “And that can be done in a variety of ways by making sure that the ventilation structures that bring fresh air into the buildings are operated in a way to prevent pollution from entering.”

Researchers will examine which air ventilation system settings are the most successful and how they impact residents’ electricity bills.

“You can change the ventilation rates [to] bring in more outside air, you can increase the fan speed, that will allow greater air exchange throughout the unit, that will actually decrease pollution concentrations, [and] you can put in different size filters in the air handling system to remove different sizes of particles,” Durant says. “So there’s different ways you can minimize your exposure.”

The team already has roughly a dozen buildings in mind for the study, which is being funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The group is working with city officials and the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP) to pare the list down.

While the study focuses on affordable housing, Ellin Reisner, president of STEP, notes that air pollution can affect everyone who lives in a certain area.

“Any resident who lives in a building near a heavily trafficked road, weather they [make] $5,000 a month or $500 a month, is susceptible to the air pollution … It happens that more people with low income live near the highway, but if you think about all of the fancy buildings in Boston, along the Greenway where all of the pollution comes out through the exits, they’re exposed, too,” Reisner says. “So it’s an issue for all housing.”

“We’re very interested in making sure that people with low incomes are protected, but we’re interested in ensuring that all people are protected,” she adds.

Durant says the team hopes to develop a guidance document on HVAC system design and operation that developers will be able to use in the future. The study could have a significant impact as communities continue to turn to affordable housing, he adds.

“We’re thinking that this study in Somerville might have broader applications to other communities in Massachusetts, and perhaps nationally,” Durant says.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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