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Car pollution killed hundreds in Mass. and thousands across 12 states, researchers say

Ioana Epure/Bloomberg

Ozone and fine particulate matter from vehicle emissions claimed approximately 7,100 lives in 12 states and Washington, D.C., in 2016, including about 620 in Massachusetts, a new study from Harvard and the University of North Carolina found.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, was led by researchers from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, the Chan School said in a statement.

The team, the statement said, reviewed 2016 data for ozone and particulate matter formed from on-road vehicle emissions, taken from the most recent national emissions inventory.


The statement said estimated premature 2016 death tallies linked to vehicle emissions were 620 in Massachusetts, 367 in Connecticut, 75 in New Hampshire, 119 in Rhode Island, 22 in Vermont, 74 in Maine, 98 in Washington, D.C., 110 in Delaware, 664 in Maryland, 1,175 in New Jersey, 2,024 in New York, 1,270 in Pennsylvania, and 485 in Virginia.

Researchers calculated eye-popping financial damages as well.

The statement said New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey recorded the highest health-related financial tolls in 2016 at $21 billion, $13 billion, and $12 billion, respectively.

In addition, the study found people are also being harmed by tailpipe emissions that travel across state lines, moving downwind.

In Massachusetts in 2016, the statement said, just 36 percent of the estimated 620 deaths were linked to in-state vehicles, with the rest caused by traffic in other states.

The statement said emissions from passenger cars and heavy-duty trucks in the Boston metro area that year caused $1.5 million in damages per ton of emissions.

And, researchers said, vehicle emissions in Massachusetts were linked to 134 premature deaths in other states.


“While particulate matter from New York City buses has the largest impact per ton of emissions in New York, in Massachusetts it’s heavy-duty trucks in Boston, and in Virginia it is light-duty autos,” said one of the study authors, Chan School research scientist Jonathan Buonocore, in the statement.

He said that as policy makers “consider how to transform the transportation sector — the largest source of carbon pollution — this research offers a roadmap for where to target investments to most cost-effectively improve air quality and health.”

Another study author, Sarav Arunachalam, who heads the Center for Environmental Modeling for Policy Development at the UNC institute, said the study shows electrifying New York City’s bus fleet will aid public health efforts.

“The research confirms that recent efforts to electrify the bus fleet in New York City will have large health benefits — or, the biggest bang for the buck,” Arunachalam said in the statement. “The cross-border impacts underscore the need for regionwide action to curb transportation emissions. What makes this study different from previous studies is that it connects the dots between where the pollution happens, and where the premature deaths occur.”

Curbing harmful emissions has long been on the radar of Massachusetts politicians.

In March, Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a climate bill that requires the state to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 75 percent below those levels by 2040, and achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050.


Since it’s unlikely the state will eliminate all of its emissions, officials will have to plant trees or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to offset any lingering use of fossil fuels or other sources of greenhouse gases.

The law calls for increasing energy-efficiency requirements for appliances and for utilities to buy significantly more offshore wind power. It also has potentially broad ramifications for the business community, touching everything from the solar industry to municipal light plants.

The study also laid out how researchers calculated health impacts like death data.

Researchers said they built a health assessment tool that linked air pollution exposures to data on “exposed populations and their background health.” They used an average of county level mortality rates from 1999 to 2016, the most recent years available from the US Centers for Disease Control’s “Wide-ranging Online Database for Epidemiologic Research,” the study said.

Material from prior Boston Globe stories was used in this report.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.