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Somerville will be the focal community in a new study by Tufts University on how to improve indoor air quality for residents living in multifamily complexes near busy roads.

The university last month launched the three-year effort, which it is carrying out in collaboration with the city.

In what Tufts is calling a first-of-its-kind project, researchers from the university’s medical and engineering schools will evaluate whether filtration systems can effectively reduce exposure to air pollution and increase comfort for residents living in affordable units in multifamily housing near highways. It will also make recommendations on the design and operation of HVAC systems for such units.

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Local policies and development pressures are giving builders an incentive to create mixed-income housing close to highways, according to John L. Durant, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Tufts School of Engineering, who is leading the study.

“This places residents at risk of high exposure to high levels of traffic-related air pollution that infiltrates indoors, a serious health hazard and area of critical need as identified by” the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Durant said by e-mail.

Tufts, which has a Medford/Somerville campus, chose Somerville for the study because the city has seen “a significant increase in the amount of affordable, multifamily housing near busy roadways where high levels of air pollution are observed,” Durant said. Somerville worked with Tufts in a previous study that found a link between residing close to highways and developing cardiovascular disease.

“We are really glad to be continuing our partnership with Tufts,” said Mike Feloney, the city’s director of housing, noting that as the densest city in New England, Somerville is a good fit for researching air pollution impacts.

“It’s really part of the city’s effort to be a data-driven administration and to know what issues are associated with development,” he said.

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The city’s participation in the study is also another way to encourage different modes of transportation — such as mass transit and bicycling — “that can get people out of cars,” Feloney observed.

In an effort to determine which combination of features is most effective, Tufts researchers will install air monitoring equipment with varied types of air filter and flow systems inside and outside units in three or four multifamily buildings near highways. Residents who choose to participate will be given gift certificates to a local grocery store.

The study also will involve a resident survey and a workshop. The city will assist in recruiting resident participants and developing the HVAC recommendations.

“We know that filtration and air recirculation within buildings can reduce exposure, but this often comes at the cost of decreased fresh intake and increased costs of operating the system,” Durant said. The research team hopes to determine if systems can be designed that maximize air quality and comfort while keeping energy costs “to within acceptable bounds.”

The study will result in a document that can be used to guide multifamily housing designers and builders. Most of the study’s costs are being funded through a $779,935 Department of Housing and Urban Development grant.


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.