Air quality in Massachusetts and across the United States has improved by 77 percent since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, but our new study finds air pollution is still responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths in Massachusetts each year and for measurable IQ loss in children in every city and town across the Commonwealth.
Air pollution control has been a remarkable triumph for public health. It has improved health, prevented thousands of premature deaths, and extended longevity. It has also been highly cost-effective, yielding an economic benefit of $30 for every dollar invested in pollution control. But despite these gains, air pollution remains a problem.
Long-term epidemiologic studies tell us that air pollution, even at low levels previously thought to be safe, causes disease, death, and disability. These diseases and deaths occur at exposure levels well below the current EPA standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter for fine particulate air pollution. Like lead poisoning, there appears to be no safe level of air pollution exposure.
Air pollution’s impacts on children’s developing brains are especially dangerous. Recent studies show that fine particulate pollution exposures in early life are linked to memory deficits, decreased brain volume, increased risks for ADHD and autism, and IQ loss. IQ loss prevents children from attaining their full potential because IQ scores are highly correlated with academic performance, standardized test scores, high-school graduation rates, college admissions, and lifelong earnings.
Our recently published study in the journal Environmental Health estimates air pollution’s health effects across Massachusetts, information we have placed in a searchable database. We found that fine particulate air pollution is responsible for disease and premature deaths in every city and town. In children, it is responsible for the birth of more than 300 underweight babies,15,000 cases of asthma, and the loss of nearly 2 million IQ points each year. Pollution-related disease, death, and IQ loss are most severe in low-income, minority communities, but they occur in every city and town. Air pollution does not respect demographic or political boundaries.
Disease, death, and IQ loss caused by air pollution can be prevented. The improvement in air quality we have achieved across the United States since 1970 shows that we know how to control pollution using laws, regulations, and technologies that are based on science, backed by enforcement, and encouraged by incentives.
The obstacles to air pollution control are no longer technical. They are economic and political. The opportunity exists to build public and policy consensus around the fact that many of the steps we must take to clean our air will also combat climate change. It remains to be seen whether the proposed climate bill now on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk will take a final form that advances real and broad reforms. The key to pollution control is courageous and visionary political leaders who pay attention to the science, recognize pollution’s great dangers, and take bold action to stop pollution at its sources. Residents need to demand that elected officials in cities, towns, and the Commonwealth use the proven tools to reduce air pollution and protect our health.
Communities can convert municipal vehicle fleets to hybrid and fully electric. They can place solar panels on the roofs of municipal buildings, preferentially purchase renewable electricity, prohibit gas hookups in new construction, and revise building codes to increase energy efficiency.
The Commonwealth can reduce pollution from cars, trucks, and buses — which emit 70 percent of Massachusetts’ air pollution — by investing in high-speed, electricity-powered rail, expanding rapid transit, and building a statewide network of charging stations for electric vehicles.
Massachusetts can set a bold new course for our energy infrastructure by increasing incentives for wind and solar power, upgrading the electric power grid, blocking construction permits for gas pipelines, compressor stations, and other components of the natural gas network, and ending all subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry. Operators of the New England electric power grid must be required to favor renewable energy over electricity from fossil fuels.
We can all find ways to transition our homes and workplaces to green energy infrastructure, reduce natural gas dependence, and increase our use of solar and wind power.
These actions will save lives, protect our children’s brains, and safeguard our Common Home.
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan is director of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College. David Bellinger is a professor of neurology and psychology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.