In Chinatown, it’s almost impossible to escape traffic. Drivers stuck bumper to bumper down Washington Street beep their horns. Trucks, cars, and busses whiz past on the Mass Pike and Route 93.
These vehicles are emitting more than just noise. Their exhaust pipes spew a mixture of fumes and particles. Some can be smelled, while others are invisible and odorless. None are good for the respiratory or cardiovascular systems of those breathing the air nearby.
Dr. Doug Brugge and his team from Tufts University have been researching the ultra-fine particulates since 2008 as part of the five-year Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health study. Research already has shown that living near highways is linked with higher rates of heart disease, asthma and lung cancer.
With data collected in Somerville, South Boston, Dorchester and Malden, the team is now focused on Chinatown. The team wants to find out just how much the air pollution affects resident’s health in such close proximity to the two major highways.
Such studies require more than good science. They rely heavily on community participation. And in Chinatown, a community in which language and cultural barriers can sometimes close doors to those asking personal health information, community associations are playing a particularly important role.
“Community partners are very actively involved in the leadership, science and work of the project,” Brugge said.
In Chinatown, the Chinese Progressive Association and the Chinatown Resident Association are the community partners that have helped neighborhood residents understand and get involved in the study, a role that's proven crucial in this tight knit and sometimes private community.
“Because the CPA and CRA endorse the project,” Brugge said, “it gives us legitimacy. It’s a strength that our community partners in other neighborhoods didn’t have with the residents.”
Community forums have been held by Tufts and these organizations around Chinatown so that residents could ask questions and give opinions about the study. Translators were also provided in hopes to ensure the research process was understood by all who attended.
Lydia Lowe, who is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, says that while this is the group’s first experience participating in a research project, its role has not deviated from its normal job of organizing Chinatown residents to have a say in various aspects of community life.
“Our members have developed ties with individuals in different buildings around Chinatown who have reached out to their neighbors, helping them understand the project enough so they are open to being studied," Lowe said. "We relied heavily on that existing network.”
According to Brugge, this network, along with Chinatown’s compactness has not only helped facilitate data collection, but increased the recruitment of participants and the reliability of those recruits in showing up to clinic appointments.
“A research assistant can leave the clinic, walk down the block, and then get someone to participate almost right away. It’s an increased level of efficiency,” he said.
Field researcher Tina Wang is one of the people who has surveyed some of the 125 Chinatown participants to date, asking about their lifestyles and activity levels before bringing them to the clinic for collection of blood samples and other baseline information such as blood pressure, height and weight. Wang says that sometimes the most basic questions took extensive explanation for an answer.
“Some people just aren’t [initially] interested to join in the community activity because they don’t understand,” Wang said.
Wang says a lot of this has to do with the language barrier, which is why her fluency in cantonese, mandarin, and taishanese has been a huge factor in the data collection itself.
“Many people I meet with are shy,” she said. “But when they open their doors and see that I’m Chinese, they feel a lot more comfortable.”
Wang also agrees that the community groups have played an important role. But as much as Brugge and his team have appreciated the facilitation by the Chinese Progressive Association, in many ways, Lowe says, the benefit of participating in the study has been mutual.
“Chinatown has always been by the highway, but that’s never been looked at this seriously," Lowe said. "We’re concerned with how development in the area has contributed to increased traffic, and it’s been good to understand how research can arm the community with information that can be important to us in our advocacy.”
In the past her organization has fought to improve living conditions and helped tenants in more than 500 housing units remain in their homes.
Lowe says that as the study nears its end, there is a lot of discussion about what comes next. A lot of affordable housing is being built next to highways because it is where the land is cheapest. However, the results of the study could complicate these plans.
“If we advocate against affordable housing next to highways will there be other sites to build?” she asked. “The question that [arises] is if we should advocate against affordable housing next to highways, or should we build housing but design it differently so it is healthier?"
She notes that developers broke ground fairly recently on a piece of land near the highway called Parcel 24. While the space is slotted for a mixed-use development including affordable housing, the results of the study could have an impact on the final development of this space and others like it in the future.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.