In Massachusetts, no community — from the Berkshires to Boston — is spared the lethal consequences of air pollution, according to a new study from researchers at Boston College.
The researchers estimated that about 2,800 people in Massachusetts died of conditions attributable to air pollution in 2019, and in a first-of-its-kind analysis, they broke down that number for each of the state’s 351 cities and towns. Their findings are available in a searchable public map.
The researchers also estimated that air pollution caused about 15,000 cases of pediatric asthma and about 300 underweight births in 2019, and the cumulative impact on childhood cognitive development is a loss of about 2 performance IQ points for the average child.
“Despite all the progress the state has made in regulating air pollution, it still causes death and disease in every single city and town across the Commonwealth,” said lead author Dr. Philip Landrigan, a biology professor who directs Boston College’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health. Economically disadvantaged and socially underserved communities are particularly hard hit, he added.
Environmental health advocates said the study’s findings and public map could spur action to reduce air pollution.
“This study is a real eye-opener,” said Cindy Luppi, the New England director for Clean Water Action. “This is the kind of information that anyone in the state can look up to see what their community is experiencing and then use to really get involved in efforts to reduce emissions locally and at the state level.”
Landrigan said the results may come as a surprise to residents who think the state has safe air. Air pollution can call to mind images of cities in China and India, he said, where on a bad day, smog can seem to blot out the sun. Visible pollution is deadly, but people do not need to be able to see fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, to feel its effects, Landrigan said.
According to the study, Massachusetts averaged 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate pollution in 2019. Those levels ranged from a low of 2.77 micrograms per cubic meter in Worcester County to a high of 8.26 in Suffolk County. More than 95 percent of the state’s air pollution is from the combustion of fossil fuels, the study said.
Massachusetts’ average falls below the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety threshold of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 pollution but above the World Health Organization’s guideline of 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
Landrigan said he’d like the standard to be no air pollution, but at the very least, the United States should reduce its standard from 12 down to 5 or even 3 micrograms per cubic meter. He compared the air pollution standards with lead standards, which were reduced over time as more data became available about lead’s consequences.
“When I started out as a pediatrician, we allowed children to have lead levels as high as 40 micrograms per deciliter,” he said. “That would send them to an emergency room today. Red lights would be flashing.”
Dr. Caleb Dresser, a climate and health fellow at Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment who is not affiliated with the study, praised the researchers for combining public health science and on-the-ground data to make salient the impacts of pollution.
“This is making air pollution a personal issue for all of us who live in Massachusetts,” said Dresser, who is also an emergency medicine physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
To reach these conclusions, researchers combined existing air quality and population data with previous studies linking pollution to health effects and an open-source EPA program that calculates the impacts of changes in air quality. They computed the health impacts that communities could expect to see at the 2019 levels of air pollution and compared them to a world without air pollution.
Air pollution can lead to deaths by causing or exacerbating lung cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease, and stroke, and it accounts for about 5 percent of all deaths in Massachusetts, according to the study.
Dresser cautioned that the results should not be interpreted as records of specific deaths.
“It’s important to remember that that is a modeled estimate that doesn’t refer to specific people from the previous year, but it does provide you with important information about the scale of this problem in your community,” he said.
The findings also are limited by the number of air quality monitoring stations in Massachusetts, Landrigan said. The state has about 20 stations across the state run by the Department of Environmental Protection. In many communities, town-specific data was not available, and in those places, researchers instead used air quality data from the surrounding county or the nearest adjacent county.
Landrigan said there needs to be more monitoring in high-risk communities, where the air quality numbers may be worse. He gave Boston as an example.
“Anybody who lives in Boston knows very well that the air quality in South Boston is not the same as the air quality in West Roxbury or in Hyde Park,” he said. “The only way you can pinpoint exactly what’s going on in a particular community is to have data from that community.”
Sonja Tengblad, the East Boston team coordinator for Mothers Out Front, said the study’s findings are concerning. She said she is worried that East Boston, where her family lives, may have even worse air quality than what is captured by the state’s sensors due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Logan International Airport and surrounding traffic.
She filters the air in her home with two high-efficiency particulate air purifiers from Austin Air, but she said the machines only protect her family when indoors and are not an affordable solution for all families living in the neighborhood. She has a 5-year-old son and said she thinks daily about moving away from East Boston.
“I worry about him growing up in this environment as a developing kid,” she said. “Why would we want to expose our kids to any of this? What it does to developing bodies and minds is just horrible.”
Emma Uppal, who also works with Mothers Out Front in East Boston, said she found the study “disconcerting, but not surprising.” She has a 2-year-old daughter, and she said she’s worried about her daughter’s health and development.
She asked her husband for an air purifier for a past birthday, and she placed it in her daughter’s room.
“We only have one, and to me, her room is the most important one to be protected,” she said.
Landrigan said that people who learn that they are living in an area with a lot of air pollution can buy an air filter, limit their outdoor exercise on especially bad days, and talk to their physicians.
He said data, such as the kind produced by his study, also can be used as a lever for political action to reduce pollution and tighten air quality standards.
Timothy Cronin, the Massachusetts climate policy director for Health Care Without Harm, agreed, saying the study could help the health care professionals the organization works with in communicating the harmful effects of air pollution to policy makers and the broader community.
“When it comes to air pollution, we need to address that current levels are still causing this many deaths in Massachusetts,” he said. “The goal should and always should be zero deaths from fossil fuel pollution.”