Ask TreeHugger: Nearby Construction and Pollution

Question: A large apartment complex is going to be built in my neighborhood, starting next month and lasting through the year. There is already a lot more congestion and many more construction vehicles near my house. Is this construction dangerous? What can I do to minimize the impact of this construction?

Response: As you are already witnessing, construction has many impacts on surrounding neighborhoods. Construction tends to be loud, dusty, and bothersome. If the construction includes demolition, some of the generated dust may contain pollutants, such as asbestos or metals, that are potentially harmful. Also, construction is likely to increase congestion in your neighborhood -- both from usual and rerouted traffic and from construction vehicles. This increased congestion generally means more pollution for your neighborhood. Since scientific studies have shown that construction dust and traffic pollution (in particular from trucks and other diesel-powered vehicles) have negative impacts on health, I think that it would be wise to reduce your exposure to construction-related pollution. This is especially true if you or anyone in your household are old (say over 65) or very young, are in poor health, have an existing heart condition, are diabetic, or are asthmatic.

There are some very easy and inexpensive ways to reduce your construction-related exposures. As a first step, you should keep your home's windows and doors closed and avoid being outside, especially when construction is occurring. If your home is right next to the construction site, these simple steps will be particularly important and can be accompanied by other measures, such as placing any room air conditioners or fans as far away from the construction as possible, since air conditioners and fans can draw air from the construction directly into your home. You could also improve seals around your windows and doors and/or get an air cleaner.

Also, you may want to check with local citizen groups that work with (or sometimes against) developers to minimize health risks for surrounding neighborhoods. I have often advised local citizen groups to understand the impacts of construction or development in a neighborhood and have found them to be effective and well informed advocates for their neighborhood. At their best, citizen groups work with developers to make sure that in the end, the construction will result in an improved neighborhood with more green space, bike paths, and common areas. You could check with the citizen groups about these plans and to make sure that the construction site is following exposure reduction measures required by local and state governments. In Massachusetts and other states, for example, trucks are not allowed to idle for more than 5 or 10 minutes and can only load and unload in pre-assigned areas -- both measures designed to minimize construction impacts on the surrounding neighborhood.

Previous Ask Treehugger columns can be found here.

Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and studies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to Helen@Treehugger.com. (Please use a descriptive email subject line and mention if you want to remain anonymous or not).

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