Should I buy a house near the highway?
April 25, 2016 9:57 AM   Subscribe

Hi, I am moving to central CT in a couple of months and am trying to buy a house. Unfortunately our favorite house is about 1800 ft from the highway. There are a lot of trees in the area -- you can't see the highway, and the noise is distant and not an issue. HOWEVER, I have two kids, ages 4 and 6, and am very concerned about air pollution and the potential health risks. Is there a reliable way to test the air for vehicle emissions? Has anyone done this successfully? (more inside)

From everything I've read, the biggest danger zone is under 1500 feet, but some sources list the risk zone as being up to a half mile. The kids' school would be about 2000 ft from the highway as well.

We have already made an offer and are in negotiations. We are including the right to inspect for air quality in the contract.

Or would you recommend I just move on and not buy it? I will add that it has many unique features and is very unlike the other houses in that area, so it's not an easy choice. Any advice would be appreciated -- thank you!
posted by mandlebrotz to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So the biggest danger I would be worried about is lead contaminated soil, not air pollution. Modern cars are very, very clean in terms of emissions (in many cases the air coming out of the tailpipe of a new car is cleaner than the average air quality in LA 20 years ago and in some cases cleaner than the current air quality). All the trees nearby will also greatly help with air quality.

However, the many, many years of leaded gas in this country has contaminated many roadside areas across the US near roads and that lead isn't going away (nor is it especially mobile, so it isn't a great risk as long as you are not living on top of it). You can get a soil test for lead contamination (I think University of Mass. does them?) and probably several other heavy metals that could be (but far less likely) present. In reality a third of mile of separation is pretty good and you are not likely to have any higher than normal background pollution problems.

In all honesty I would be far more worried about being downwind from either an old industrial facility or (worst of all) a coal fired power plant.
posted by bartonlong at 10:06 AM on April 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Would you be doing any gardening for food? How long has the highway been there? I've heard (and have no proof of this) that land near the Interstate during the times of leaded gas isn't dirt you want to garden with….
posted by kimota at 10:07 AM on April 25, 2016

Both the pollution and the noise issue depend on the main wind direction in the area. Check that out, it will make a huge difference. If it's mainly wind-off, I would consider the house, if the location is otherwise ok. If it's mostly wind-on, no way in the world (and I do know what I'm talking about, noise wise).
posted by Namlit at 10:19 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

There was a study last year that showed living close to the highway was associated with health risks. That being said, you seem to be just outside of the major risk zone by a bit according to this summary. I would think prevailing winds would matter, as stated above.
posted by procrastination at 10:30 AM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes this is a huge issue generally, but we can't tell you the exact condition of this property.

To determine the exact condition of this property, figure out what sort of environmental tests you need to have done (air, soil, paint, air quality inside the home, etc..) and do those tests via whatever professional service is relevant. Then decide once the tests are completed and you have the results.

I'm not sure how that is going to effect negotiations. You might need to talk to a RE lawyer asap to get you out of any penalties... I mean, you can't move into a situation where your children's life long health will be adversely effected. I think you need to do your due diligence here. If the seller balks (+ the agents/brokers involved will absolutely dissuade you from doing any research that might kill the deal) well, this is why you need someone on your side. Lawyer if you don't already have one to handle your environmental concerns during the negotiation process.

I loves me some rural CT. Good luck! It's a big place, you'll find another house if this isn't the one. I promise.
posted by jbenben at 10:32 AM on April 25, 2016

Thank you all! Great advice. I have a few follow up questions...

How can we determine whether we are downwind or not? I'm new to the area and have no idea which direction the prevailing winds blow.

Also, I would like to do thorough testing, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what tests to do, and how to interpret the results. I found one company that will run air tests but they are crazy expensive ($2000+) and they didn't give me much confidence that they'd know how to interpret the results. (i.e. what level of particulate matter is normal/acceptable?)

The highway (I-84) was built in the late 60's, I think?

I would eventually like to garden, but nothing major... I would think I could use planters and store-bought soil if need be. That said, my kids do like to get muddy. If anyone has used a soil test they would recommend, please share. Thank you!!
posted by mandlebrotz at 10:45 AM on April 25, 2016

You should have the water coming out of the pipes tested, too. Not the water in the area, but the water coming out of the actual pipes in the actual house. Especially the hot water, because stuff gets gunked up in traditional hot water heater systems.

I think there is a fancy word for the type of testing you want done and I'm hoping someone can pop in with better advice than "environmental testing" google that. I do know that there will be heaps of options closer to NYC who would be willing to come out to the proposed property, so don't look for firms just in CT. Also, the testing and the place that does the lab work might be different, you might be able to do your own tests in some cases and send samples directly to a lab? IDK. I've never done this before. Just letting you know that there is sometimes a difference between a firm and who does the actual lab work....

You might just want to call the lab with the best reputation in your area and ask them for advice. I bet someone there can tell you what you are looking for and how much it should cost.

Thanks for this question! I'll be checking back to see how you proceed. I feel like this is something every home buyer should do.
posted by jbenben at 11:08 AM on April 25, 2016

I don't think you have to worry at all. You can measure air quality on an established scale that breaks air quality up into categories based on how many particles of pollution are in the air. Here's a link with each category and what they mean for human health:

Basically, anything under 50 is definitely fine, and anything from 51-100 is pretty much fine unless you have asthma or you're doing heavy exercise and breathing really hard.

In this next link, ( you can see the real time air quality of NYC, right now it is around 52. There is pretty much no way that a highway in Connecticut could get anywhere close to the activity of New York City, and the air quality in NYC is fine anyway! Hope this puts your mind at ease.
posted by leafmealone at 11:10 AM on April 25, 2016

The prevailing winds are westerlies. You can get soil tests done cheaply by UMass (linked in an askme last week, maybe?). While it's true that proximity to roadways is important for asthma, I agree with those above who say you're far enough away for it to be unlikely to make a big difference at your house. Welcome to New England!
posted by ldthomps at 11:13 AM on April 25, 2016

Folks who are saying that you don't have to worry are, unfortunately, incorrect. I worked with several State Departments of Health, and environmental epidemiologists have significant concern for the health impacts of air quality as a result of traffic volume. Proximity to high traffic volume increases the chance of asthma, cardiovascular mortality and morbidity, and having a child with autism. The main culprit is PM2.5, which is really fucking bad for your blood, heart, lungs, and brain.

And while a single car is very clean, thousands of cars per hour turns into straws that break the camel's back.

Unfortunately, more general "air quality indicators" don't really have the resolution to capture air quality info based on proximity to high-volume traffic - they are much more general, lower-resolution measures of ambient air quality.

There are some studies out there about proximity, and you can use that and information about prevailing winds to see if you would like to be concerned. Some brief googling yielded the following, and I'm sure you can use some of the terminology from these to find more associated work to answer more of your questions about proximity:

From a quick skimming of a few of those links, I'd hazard that 1800ft (~600m) is reasonably okay. Most research is focused on comparing effects inside of 200m to effects outside of it, and it seems like there's a pretty fast drop-off with distance.
posted by entropone at 1:24 PM on April 25, 2016

There are a lot of trees in the area -- you can't see the highway, and the noise is distant and not an issue.

There will not be trees in the dead of winter--have you been to the house then? We house shopped in winter and were considering a house that bordered the NYS Thruway but seeing (and hearing) the property in winter helped affirm that it wasn't the place for us. We live about a block away from a non-highway but pretty well trafficked road and it's still loudish in winter.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:09 PM on April 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Welcome to central CT. I live here. Feel free to me mail me for advice on the area.

I would be concerned living that close to 84 from a health perspective, and the house may have a poor resale value if you sell in a few years. There's enough available housing stock and open land in central CT that buyers can be very choosy, and near busy highways is a big detriment.
posted by slateyness at 6:27 PM on April 25, 2016


We used to live 1,845 ft downwind from an interstate (according to Google Earth.) I knew moving in that the air and noise were there but I thought I'd get used to it. I did not have asthma when we moved in, so I wasn't very concerned about being that far downwind. We lived there eleven years. It was apparent by about year eight that we had to move, for the air, but I was so sick that it took us another three years to get out.

I never got used to the noise, even in summer, with leaves on the trees. Nor did I ever get used to how much black crud fell out of the sky on my outdoor things. I had to quit gardening food because even though the soil was probably ok, I couldn't help but wonder about the particulates.

When we looked for a new house, we deliberately ruled out school districts where elementary schools were too close to interstates. In my state, you can get asthma rates by school district, or in some cases by individual school, and there was a direct correlation. I'd never put my developing lung-having kid through this.

Oh, and if you want to search for other things, since you say you're not familiar with the area, use this: EPA envirofacts - most of the stuff on there is pretty minor, and the user interface is horrible, but the violators are there too if you take the time to dig.

I'd also cross reference "name of town" with "environmental news" or "EPA violation" and get creative with your search terms.

This is a new thing for us so probably no one has done this for your area yet but you can see how the poor AQ tracks the highways (and the rivers and the hills.)

You can buy a Speck tester for cheaper than a $2000 AQ test: ... around here, our Carnegie libraries bought a bunch of them and are letting people check them out, so when you're done, you can donate it to your library for fun times. I don't know if they can get it to you before your due diligence window closes.

There's modeling software that lets you plug in your hills and prevailing winds, but I couldn't get enough data as a semi-layperson to make it work (your topography may vary). It was easier to drive around and notice who had soot marks on their white trim, or if we were looking at a house, open the windows and look at the sill between the glass and the screen. Most people forget to clean outside the windows when they prep for sale, and even if they do, you can still see griminess in the corners because it stains. The poor AQ also tends to etch a little but that's pretty hard to notice. If you're looking at a really old house, you might notice the windows are hazier or the mortar between the bricks is more eroded on the interstate side of the house.

Sometimes the black marks are algae, so you have to notice which side of the house they're on. Under a tree or on the north side? Probably algae. On the sunny side of the house that's also the interstate side? Probably particulates.

Prevailing winds - just google. I found this: but you can also look by town:

(Hey, I used to live right off I84 too - but at 2777 feet, according to Google Earth.)

There's always another house. I'd move on.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:10 AM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd say "pass." If this is worrying you now, it's likely to just increase and continue to nibble at you the entire time you live there. And I'd expect it to get worse as the kids get older and range more widely. Also, it's really hard to put a price on dealing with the constant low-level background stress that comes from highway noise.
posted by Miko at 6:28 AM on April 26, 2016

I lived for a couple of years in an apartment near an Interstate in Florida. To my surprise, worse than the noise and environmental concerns was the amount of criminal activity in the area. In addition to drug dealing taking place in our community, people fleeing the police on I-95 would ditch their cars on the main road and flee on foot...into the area where we lived. Dramatic chases with various weaponry deployed: not the best environment for a toddler.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 6:57 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

There will not be trees in the dead of winter--have you been to the house then? We house shopped in winter and were considering a house that bordered the NYS Thruway but seeing (and hearing) the property in winter helped affirm that it wasn't the place for us. We live about a block away from a non-highway but pretty well trafficked road and it's still loudish in winter.

If this is a significant deal, you could check out past Google streetviews - they may have views of the house and surroundings in different seasons.
posted by amicamentis at 7:01 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

If this is a significant deal, you could check out past Google streetviews - they may have views of the house and surroundings in different seasons.

This won't tell you about the noise, though. The house we ended up buying is 4,000 feet from the NYS Thruway, though the Thruway isn't visible at all. In our front yard, in the winter, you can hear it pretty easily. I can't imagine what it would sound like if we were 1800 feet away.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:45 PM on April 26, 2016

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