This is the second story in a three-part series on transportation-related air pollution in the Boston area. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Traffic-related air pollution is a health problem around the region, contributing to cardiovascular disease and other health impacts. But it’s not just an outdoor problem.

New research from Boston-area scientists shows dangerous air particles are getting into homes, schools and workplaces along highways in the region. But there are ways to limit that exposure.

One of those scientists is Gary Adamkiewicz of Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who's been busy recently taking air samples on top of buildings in Dorchester to get a baseline of the pollution in the community. He will compare the results to samples taken inside 150 nearby homes.

"The goal of the study is really to understand what affects air pollution exposures in people's homes in real time," Adamkiewicz said. He’s especially interested in fine particles that come from traffic pollution. "They're the particles that can penetrate deeply into the lung and affect our lung health, our heart health," he said.

Those health impacts from traffic-related air pollution are predominantly seen in low-income communities located along highways and busy roadways. But research by Adamkiewicz and others has shown that how a building is constructed can make a big difference in reducing the indoor exposure to this kind of air pollution.

Adamkiewicz and his team measured pollution inside apartments at the Old Colony public housing complex in South Boston, comparing older units to newly-redeveloped ones quipped with central air conditioning and windows that don't fully open to the busy roadway. In the newer apartments, they found a more than 40 percent reduction in fine particles coming from outdoors.

"What we saw at Old Colony is that the children diagnosed with asthma who were living in the older public housing were three to four times more likely to have an attack or a hospitalization for their asthma, than the asthmatic children living in the green housing," he said.

Harvard air pollution research
Harvard University Professor Gary Adamkiewicz (left) and Research Assistant Andrew Shapiro work with air monitoring equipment on a Dorchester rooftop.
Craig LeMoult WGBH News

Some residents, such as Magdalene Challenger, like the new apartment.

"I feel much better here than over there," said Challenger, who moved from an older apartment building in the complex to one of the newer apartments about six years ago. "Much, much, much better."

But other residents don't love the change.

"The style of the windows, it's terrible," said resident Geraldine Paxton. "There's only one that opens on a hinge, and it only opens about maybe five inches wide. You can't get any air coming into the place. I have to get a fan and to try to force it into my apartment."

Which, of course, undermines the goal of preventing exposure to outdoor air pollution. But she says there’s a reason she does it.

"They don't change the filters very often," Paxton said. "I've been here eight years. Maybe twice, maybe three times they put a new filter in there."

Paxton pointed to an open air conditioning grate near the floor of the living room, revealing a filter inside that was covered in dust. "So I feel congested here. I don't feel like the air that I'm breathing is very good," she said. "So that's why I open the windows."

The property manager at Old Colony said it’s up to the residents to call and request a filter change. But since residents often don’t do that, the company said it now plans to start automatically changing the filters every six months.

Of course, in some neighborhoods, opening up the windows is a good way to get some fresh air.

"If you live in Lexington, and you don't live right next to the highway, and the outside air is clean, opening the windows brings in fresh air," said Doug Brugge, the chair of Community Medicine and Health Care at the University of Connecticut. "If you live in Chinatown, and you open the windows, most days it's not really bringing in fresh air. It's bringing in a lot of pollution with it."

Brugge used to be on the faculty at Tufts Medical Center in Chinatown. Tufts researchers have measured traffic air pollution all over Boston, and have found the highest levels just outside their offices in Chinatown. Brugge pointed out that just up the street from there are several public schools built right along the Mass Pike.

"They don't have the adequate filtration," he said. "There are lots of schools near highways. There's three schools right along the Mass Pike here. They don't have anything special in their ventilation system."

Richard Chang, the headmaster of the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, said that's absolutely true.

"We do not have any kind of remediation at this point," Chang said. "The Arlington Street building was constructed in 1912. It does not have central ventilation of any kind, and so typically teachers would open up windows when it's warm. And those windows face the Mass Pike highway, and there is no barrier to any of the pollutants that would be present."

The city plans to build a new school to replace that one, and the architect says they intend to include state of the art filtration. But it isn’t scheduled to open until 2023.

"It's human instinct to sometimes not want to know the truth," Chang said. "Because it’s kind of scary that we might be in these buildings that actually are very dangerous for us — harmful — that can cause cardiovascular diseases. Not just pulmonary diseases. It's going to become an issue: How do we remediate and to improve the air quality for schools such as ours?"

Richard Chang
Richard Chang, interim academic superintendent for the Boston Public Schools and headmaster of the Josiah Quincy Upper School, stands outside with students during class dismissal. Two major highways, Route 93 South and the Massachusetts Turnpike abut the school, resulting in high levels of air pollution.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

According to a 2017 report from the city, about 70 percent of middle and elementary schools and 44 percent of high schools in Boston had deficient or poor ventilation.

Researchers say something could be done now to reduce the exposure at schools like Josiah Quincy Upper School.

Neelakshi Hudda of Tufts University has studied the effectiveness of free-standing air filters that can just be plugged in. The devices are called High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, and they filter the tiniest and possibly most dangerous particles, called ultrafines.

Hudda published a study comparing air quality in two different situations. "One where there was nothing, just the home as is," she said. "And then one where the HEPA filter was running inside the home."

She found the filters can cut as much as 85 percent of ultrafine particles in a room.

"So, HEPA filters [are] designed to clean up the air," Hudda said. "And that is exactly what it does. It reduces the concentrations indoors."

Boston Public Schools spokesman Dan O’Brien said in a statement that for HEPA filtration to be effective, it would need to be part of a centralized HVAC system — but the Josiah Quincy Upper School doesn’t have one. And, O’Brien said, HEPA filtration would be incompatible with the HVAC system in the elementary school next door.

The statement also said the school system’s testing didn’t reveal any air quality issues in those schools that would require additional filtration. But ultrafine particles aren’t regulated, and schools don’t test for them.

Students at the Josaiah Quincy School in Boston play on the school’s basketball courts after dismissal. The school, and its outdoor playing spaces, run alongside two major highways, route 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Meredith Nierman WGBH News

Another way to reduce exposure in schools is to not build them next to highways in the first place. In 2003, California banned any new school construction within 500 feet of a freeway.

One Massachusetts lawmaker sees that as a model worth emulating. Rep. Denise Provost of Somerville has introduced three bills to regulate ultrafine particles, including one that would require proximity to highways to be taken into account when siting new schools.

"This bill would would require a thoughtful approach, both to choosing the site in the first place, and the whole design process, and the standards to which the filtration system for the building is engineered," Provost said.

Provost has been introducing the bills every year since 2007, without success. But now, she said she's encouraged by all the new scientific research and she's hopeful that with more public awareness, the state will start to take the issue seriously.

Correction: The written and radio versions of this story have been updated to reflect that Richard Chang is the headmaster of the Josiah Quincy Upper School and no longer holds the title of interim academic superintendent for Boston Public Schools.