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Choking on diesel fumes, Boston should cut construction emissions

GROWING UP in the city shouldn’t be a health hazard. Yet 1 in 10 children in Boston have asthma, and the rate of diesel pollution in the city is 300 times acceptable levels. Suffolk County has the third-worst diesel pollution in the entire United States. Those numbers ought to be ringing alarm bells — and should convince the City Council to support a plan to crack down on diesel pollution from construction sites.

The proposal, offered by Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, who is himself asthmatic, would require all contractors doing business with the city or working on city-subsidized projects to install filters that would remove 90 percent of toxic particulates from the miasma of smoke belched out by bulldozers, backhoes, and other construction vehicles. Unfiltered diesel soot not only increases the risk of asthma, but can also contribute to cancer, stroke, and heart attacks.


Massachusetts has already made significant progress in curbing diesel pollution by installing filters on MBTA locomotives, garbage trucks, and many other vehicles. State officials expect diesel pollution to fall 75 percent from 2002 levels by the end of this decade. Boston has made great strides, too: About 900 of the city’s 1,390 diesel vehicles have been retrofitted with filters, including all school buses.

Yet off-road construction vehicles have largely avoided tighter regulation. The Commonwealth does require state contractors to use filters, but only a cheaper, less effective variety that gets rid of only about a quarter of toxic particulates.

Contractors have complained that the cost of installing the more effective filters, which in some cases can be up to $20,000, would be a crippling burden during a bad economy. But those costs, which in practice are likely to be divided across a number of projects, have to be weighed against the health care costs of diesel pollution. Providence, Chicago, and Pittsburgh have all passed similar rules, and it’s time for Boston to follow suit. Keeping toxic soot out of the lungs of city residents is worth the price.