Well-Being Longevity

Massachusetts air pollution linked with thousands of deaths, IQ loss in children

“Clearly, current EPA air pollution standards are not adequately protecting public health.”
Cars drive over a bridge in Boston, Massachusetts
The Associated Press/Michael Dwyer

Story at a glance

  • Air pollution has been linked with a myriad of health conditions including diabetes, stillbirth and impaired lung development in children.

  • To determine the extent of the pollutant’s effect on Massachusetts residents, researchers conducted a town-by-town analysis of fine particulate matter.

  •  They found that even though limits were below those deemed acceptable by the EPA, thousands of air pollution-related deaths still occurred each year in the state.

Air pollution resulting from fossil fuel combustion has been associated with a host of new and worsening illnesses including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD. Now, new research from Boston College details to what extent air pollution has affected residents in Massachusetts. 

Using public data and open-source software, researchers concluded air pollution is responsible for about 2,780 deaths each year in the state. They also found measurable cognitive loss among children exposed to the fine particulate matter. 

Notably, the 2019 Massachusetts levels used in the study were below standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but above those of the World Health Organization. 

Taking a hyper-local approach, the authors measured effects of exposure in each of the state’s towns. Regardless of demographics or income level, analyses showed air pollution-related disease, death and intelligence quotient (IQ) loss in every city and town assessed. 

Higher rates of adverse events were reported in underserved, minority and economically disadvantaged communities. Based on the findings, an average child likely loses two IQ points as a result of air pollution exposure, authors said.

“IQ loss impairs children’s school performance, reduces graduation rates and decreases lifetime earnings,” they wrote.

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The majority of deaths recorded were from cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic respiratory disease — all conditions that can be exacerbated by air pollution. 

In addition, the pollution was responsible for more than 300 low birth weights and 15,300 cases of childhood asthma in the state in 2019. 

“Prevention of disease and premature death and preservation of children’s cognitive function will require that EPA air quality standards be tightened. Enduring prevention will require government-incentivized transition to renewable energy coupled with phase-outs of subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels,” authors wrote. 

The methodology employed used data from the EPA’s Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis software and state data, meaning any state can replicate this strategy to map community-level health effects. 

Worcester County, Mass., had the lowest levels of fine particulate matter measured while Suffolk Country had the highest. The combustion of fossil fuels accounted for more than 95 percent of pollution recorded.

“Clearly, current EPA air pollution standards are not adequately protecting public health,” said study co-author Philip J. Landrigan in a press release, adding the totals reported in this study account for nearly 5 percent of all deaths in the state.

“We know the steps that need to be taken to reduce fatalities and the impact on our children and grandchildren. Now citizens in every city and town across the Commonwealth need to urge our elected officials to take those necessary steps,” he said.

Proposed solutions to the problem include transitioning to clean energy on a city-wide basis, including use of electric vehicles and solar panels. Authors also called on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to add air monitoring stations in economically disadvantaged and underserved areas.

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