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Air pollution blamed for nearly 3,000 Massachusetts deaths annually

A truck waits in the Steamship Authority lot while passengers walk past it to board the ferry in Woods Hole.
Liz Lerner
A truck waits in the Steamship Authority lot while passengers walk past it to board the ferry in Woods Hole.

Air pollution is responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths a year in Massachusetts — 5 percent of all deaths in the state, according to a new study from Boston College researchers. The study offers a first-of-its-kind breakdown of the public health consequences from air pollution on a town-by-town basis.

Air pollution has been linked to asthma, strokes, low birth weights, cancer, heart disease, and even loss of IQ points.

“These are very tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and even get into the bloodstream and then move to every organ of the body where they can cause a lot of damage and disease,” said pediatrician and study author Dr. Philip Landrigan.

The health effects of air pollution in Dennis, Chatham, and Yarmouth are arguably worse than in any other towns on the Cape or Islands, according to the study.

The average level of fine particulate pollution across Massachusetts in 2019 was 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter, but in those three towns, there were 6.8 micrograms per meter.

Among residents of Dennis, an estimated .93 deaths per thousand were related to air pollution.

On the South Coast, air pollution was responsible for as many as 378 pediatric asthma cases per year in New Bedford, putting it in the state’s top five worst towns or cities for pediatric asthma, when adjusted for population.

Experts believe air pollution is high in some local towns because, Landrigan said, the Cape and Islands are almost immediately downwind of the New York City metropolitan area.

“A fair amount of the air pollution that comes onto the Cape, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket comes up from the city across Long Island Sound and then out on that northeasterly track going out into the Atlantic,” he said.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health, found the highest levels of air pollution were in Suffolk County, where Boston, Winthrop and Chelsea are located.

That was unsurprising to researchers; more than 95 percent of air pollution in Massachusetts results from the combustion of fossil fuels, and more engines of all kinds are running in dense, urban areas.

A close look at the data, Landrigan said, shows that the highest pollution levels are in low income, heavily minority cities and towns.

“It's an example of what's come to be known as ‘environmental injustice.’ But having said that, no city, no town is spared air pollution,” he said. “And even some of the very wealthy suburbs around Boston, for example, have a considerable air pollution problem. And this reflects the fact that air pollution does not respect political boundaries. It crosses town and city lines.”

Air pollution has declined by more than 70 percent nationally since President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act decades ago, and air pollution levels in Massachusetts remain well within state and federal limits.

That’s why, Landrigan said, he was surprised by the sheer number of deaths caused by air pollution.

“We're dealing with an air pollution level here in Massachusetts that's almost 50 percent below the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, and yet we're seeing 2,780 deaths,” he said. “I find that very disturbing.”

He noted that there’s much that can be done to clean up the air.

“Next time you buy a car, consider a hybrid or an electric vehicle instead of an SUV that runs on gas or diesel,” Landrigan said. “Cars, trucks, busses are responsible for about 75 percent of our air pollution across the state.”

Policymakers also should do more to seek solutions, he said, including more incentives for electric vehicles, renewable energy, and public transportation.

Landrigan’s study focused on Massachusetts, but he emphasized that the issue is global.

“All forms of pollution — air, water, chemicals, soil — are responsible for 9 million premature deaths around the world every year, which is three times more deaths than AIDS, malaria and TB put together,” Landrigan said.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.