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Mobile air quality monitoring van equips city with data to enact policy & infrastructure change

Boston, MA

Tufts University in collaboration with 5 community-based organizations and support from Harvard School of Public Health and Beth Israel Hospital, conducted a study to assess the association between exposure to air pollutants emanating from highway traffic and cardiac health in communities near highways.

Topics Covered

Air Quality, Health, Noise


Initial: Zero Upfront Cost


Federal grants

Project Status

Operational since 2004

Gov Champion

Metropolitan Area Planning Council & Boston Public Health Commission

Problem Addressed

There is considerable evidence that ultrafine particles (UFP) are associated with substantial health impacts.

Due to levels of UFP being drastically elevated in areas within a close proximity of the highway, that means that often low-income and minority populations that are at greater risk.

Through the collaboration of Tufts University, Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), and Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), the project aimed to use the volume of knowledge on the association between freeway pollution exposure and health outcomes, as well as specific air pollution monitoring data collected during the CAFEH study, to influence and enact changes in development and policy in these two areas.

Solutions Used

To effectively capture a wide range of data, the study worked with CHANGE to design and build a mobile monitoring van.

This enabled the research team to collecting and comparing measurements of highway-generated air pollution, and measure changes in air pollution levels and health impacts as a function of distance from highways in Somerville and 5 other communities in greater Boston.

The state of the art mobile monitoring van was outfitted for measuring all particle ranges and gaseous species and used across the 4 year study. The air pollutants measured included: UFP (number and size), PM2.5, BC (mass), NO, NO2, CO, CO2, Ozone. These pollutants were selected because they are associated with cardiac and/or pulmonary health effects and-with the exception of PM2.5-they are all present at high levels in highway vehicle exhaust. PM2.5 is also associated with cardiac health effects, but it is not typically present at high levels in primary vehicular emissions. Rather, PM2.5 is a regional pollutant whose mass concentrations are relatively invariant over urban spatial scales. PM2.5 was measured to distinguish its contribution to health effects from UFP (particles that comprise a small fraction of PM2.5 mass) and the other highway related air pollutants. In addition to these pollutants, the use of the van also enabled real-time measurements of total particle-bound polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAH are of interest because of their toxicity, and because they are also commonly found in vehicular exhaust that may provide insight into levels and potential chemical toxicity of the UFP.



Use of the mobile air monitoring van created a data set was obtained of ultra fine air pollutants that was used to benchmark additional studies in Boston.


The research prompted Somerville officials to move a park 200 meters away from the highway rather than renovate, and pushed for the construction of a new subway stop to reduce car traffic.


The research empowered the city to work with developers to ensure new houses built near I-93 have good air filtration systems.


Somerville has added designated bike lanes to reduces car pollution. About 17.5% of city workers bike or walk to their jobs– far above the national and state averages!


In 2018 the Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill allocating $500,000 to reduce noise pollution along Somerville's I-93 corridor and also trap air pollutants on the highway.

Something Unique

Mobile air pollution monitoring laboratories were constructed that carried scientific monitoring equipment for measurements of all various traffic related air pollution. Each mobile van was designed specifically for use and operating in accordance with all physical properties of airflow and particle dynamics.

Who Should Consider

Public health officials who want to gain a better understanding of air pollutant patterns and potential effects on human health.

Last Updated

Jul 16th, 2020
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