Air Pollution Caused Thousands of Deaths in Massachusetts In Just One Year: Study

Most of the air pollution came from fossil fuel sources, researchers found

The findings of a new study highlight the devastating effects of air pollution, indicating that toxins in the air may have been responsible for more than 3,000 deaths and 15,000 cases of asthma diagnosed in Massachusetts in 2019 alone, as well as widespread drops in IQ points among children in the state.

Researchers from Boston College used the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis (BenMAP-CE) software and state data to quantify the effects of airborne fine particulate matter PM 2.5 pollution on disease, death and children’s cognitive function (IQ loss) in each city and town in Massachusetts.

In a report published this week in the medical journal Environmental Health, researchers estimate more than 2 million IQ points were lost among children in Massachusetts, in addition to impacting death rates in every city and town in the state, regardless of location, demographics or family income. However, the effects were the most severe in low-income, minority communities.

According to the data, average PM 2.5 concentrations in Massachusetts in 2019 were 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/M3), a level below EPA’s standard of 12 μg/M3 and above the World Health Organization’s guideline of 5 μg/M3.

Exposure to this level of particulate matter air pollution among adults led to 2,780 deaths, researchers determined. The exposures caused 2,185 deaths from lung cancer, another 200 came from stroke, and 343 from chronic respiratory disease.

Side effects of air pollution on children led to 308 low-weight births under five and a half pounds, 15,386 asthma cases, and an estimated loss of nearly 2 million performance IQ points. Loss of IQ points among children can lead to impaired school performance, reduced graduation rates and decreases in overall lifetime earnings when the child matures to adulthood.

Researchers said 95% of air pollution in the state came from the combustion of fossil fuels. Most of it came from vehicle sources like cars, airplanes, trucks and ships. Those sources emit nearly 655,000 tons of PM 2.5 per year.

Other sources include industrial manufacturing and residential heating and cooking systems, which account for roughly 283,000 tons of particulate matter.

This is the first time town-by-town air pollution data for Massachusetts has been released. Despite variances seen in size, researchers found air quality varied by location.

Air Pollution Health Risks

Air pollution is responsible for an estimated 6.7 million deaths globally in 2019 alone and nearly 200,000 deaths in the US. Much like was seen in Massachusetts, fossil fuel combustion is the major source.

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The researchers said significant reductions in air pollution could be achieved by reducing municipal fleets, converting to electric vehicles, and installing solar panels on public buildings. They said health agencies should focus on monitoring community air quality to determine local health effects. Additionally, the EPA should tighten federal air quality standards, they advised.

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

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