Air pollution in Massachusetts remains a silent killer, responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths a year and measurable cognitive losses in Bay State children exposed to fine particulate pollutants in the air, according to a new study by researchers at Boston College’s Global Observatory are Planetary Health.
The study, supported by the Barr Foundation, is the first to examine the broader public health impacts of air pollution on a city-by-city basis in the state. The study found that air pollution-related illnesses, deaths, and IQ drops occur in every city and community, regardless of demographics or income level. The highest rates were recorded in the most economically disadvantaged and socially underserved cities and communities.
The Boston College team estimates the cumulative impact on childhood cognitive development in Massachusetts in 2019 as a loss of nearly 2 million achievement IQ points, or more than 2 IQ points for the average child, according to the published in the journal report environmental health. The IQ drop affects children’s academic performance and reduces graduation rates, the team found.
“We’re talking about the impact of air pollution on a very local level in Massachusetts — not just statewide,” said lead author, Boston College biology professor Philip J. Landrigan, MD, director of the observatory. “This report gives people in every city and town a chance to see for themselves the quality of the air they and their families breathe and the dangerous health consequences of air pollution for adults and children.”
“All of these health effects occurred at pollution levels below current EPA standards,” noted Landrigan.
Average particulate matter pollution across Massachusetts in 2019 was 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter, and levels ranged from a low of 2.77 micrograms per cubic meter in Worcester County to a high of 8.26 micrograms in Suffolk County. The US Environmental Protection Agency standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter and the World Health Organization recommended guideline is 5.
“Current EPA air pollution standards clearly do not adequately protect public health,” Landrigan said.
City-by-city air pollution information is generally unavailable due to the lack of air quality monitoring stations in the state. The team determined the levels for each city and town using available data and computer modelling.
While Massachusetts meets state clean air guidelines and U.S. air pollution has fallen by 70 percent since passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s — when Landrigan and other scientists successfully pushed for the removal of lead from gasoline — the Unclean air still at the current level A health hazard for both healthy people and people with other ailments or illnesses.
“We don’t have the level of air pollution that you see in China or India, and because it’s mostly invisible today, people tend to forget about air pollution and we get complacent,” Landrigan said. “We hope to break through that complacency and raise awareness. Air pollution kills 2,780 people in Massachusetts every year, almost 5 percent of all deaths in the state, and that’s a big deal. Air pollution is something we can fix. We know the steps that need to be taken to reduce deaths and the impact on our children and grandchildren. Now the citizens of every city and town across the Commonwealth must call on our elected officials to take these necessary steps.”
Other insights are:
- Of the 2,780 deaths attributed to air pollution in Massachusetts in 2019, at least 2,185 were due to lung cancer, 1,677 to heart disease, 343 to chronic lung disease, and 200 to stroke.
- Air pollution was responsible for 15,386 cases of pediatric asthma and an estimated 308 low birth weight babies (5.5 pounds or less).
More than 95 percent of Massachusetts air pollution results from burning fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and ships account for two-thirds of pollutant emissions – 655,000 tons – in 2017, the latest year for which data was available. Power plants, industrial plants and household heating and cooking produced 283,000 tons. In total, these sources emitted 938,000 tons of pollutants.
Burning fossil fuels is also the main source of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive global climate change, which the researchers say should further spur Massachusetts to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning to cleaner fuels.
“Air pollution harms our environment and young people, and those pressures disproportionately impact environmental justice communities,” said Kathryn Wright, senior program officer for clean energy at the Barr Foundation. “Meaningful action on climate change requires that we quickly address air pollution from transport and our energy system and its many harmful effects.”
Particulate matter air pollution is linked to several non-communicable diseases in adults, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer and diabetes. For infants and children, air pollution increases the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, impaired lung development and asthma.
“All of these adverse health effects occur at levels of particulate matter pollution below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s current annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter,” Landrigan said. “Even for a state like Massachusetts that is registered under this standard, air pollution is a tremendous public health threat that urgently needs to be addressed.”
The report recommends the following solutions:
- City and local authorities should convert their fleets to electric vehicles, install solar panels on public buildings, give preference to buying green electricity, ban gas connections in new buildings and revise building codes to increase energy efficiency.
- Massachusetts authorities must ask the US Environmental Protection Agency to tighten state air quality standards for particulate matter pollution to better protect health. It is unacceptable for pollution to cause disease and premature death in Massachusetts residents in legally permissible amounts.
- Massachusetts must establish targets and timetables for reducing air pollution emissions.
- The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) needs to add more airborne surveillance stations, with priority being given to deployment in economically disadvantaged and socially vulnerable communities.
- The DEP is required to publish an annually updated open source inventory of air pollutant emissions
- The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is required to create a publicly available dashboard reporting pollution-related illnesses and deaths in every county, city and locality in the Commonwealth.
- Massachusetts and the United States must recognize the significant health and environmental impacts of natural gas and reduce reliance on gas for power and heating.
- Massachusetts and the United States must accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to wind and solar power by providing incentives for renewable energy and ending tax breaks and government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.