Will Massachusetts improve air quality for communities burdened by air pollution? According to a new study from Boston College’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health by pediatrician Dr. Phil Landrigan and Harvard Medical School neurology and psychology professor David Bellinger, air pollution kills an estimated 2,800 people annually. The study also demonstrates how air pollution damages our well-being — from underweight births and pediatric asthma to heart disease and cancer. The findings are devastating and grim, and also beg the question, how many more studies on air pollution’s harmful effects on our collective health and communities must be published before we change course in Massachusetts?
This legislative session, a crucial air quality priority supported by the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Table, a coalition of organizations working to achieve environmental justice, and the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, was not included in the final climate bill sent to Governor Baker’s desk for signature. Why? The Air Quality Bill is a bold, yet essential step to advance public health, equity, and environmental justice. How could it not?
For over a decade, Massachusetts has made important strides in addressing climate change and, relatedly, air pollution. Since the passage of the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, there has been a marked reduction in pollution. The Legislature set climate pollutant emission reduction targets to fight the climate crisis and improve air quality. These actions have accomplished tangible benefits. These victories cannot be fully celebrated until the benefits of cleaner air are reflected in public health outcomes and shared among all communities.
Dangerous air pollution, especially from ultrafine particulate matter (UFP), nitrogen oxides, and black carbon, persists today in many parts of our state. And, while air pollution affects all, environmental justice populations — people of color, Indigenous people, low-income households, and limited-English-proficient speakers — continue to bear a disproportionate burden. As the earth warms, asthma and respiratory diseases will increase dramatically in areas ravaged by air pollution. Already, one in five children in the U.S. has asthma because of car exhaust. These children are disproportionately of color and tend to live closer to highways.
Tragically, the pandemic has reminded us of the consequences of increased vulnerability to pulmonary diseases. Studies have shown that people in communities with higher levels of air pollution experienced worse COVID-19 symptoms and were more likely to die from the virus. In Massachusetts, an analysis from the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey underscored that the devastation wrought by the pandemic has not been experienced equally. Communities like Chelsea, Roxbury, Brockton, Lawrence, Somerville, and Springfield, among others, are suffering from decades of air pollution that has led to poor health outcomes and increased premature mortality for residents of those communities.
While these public health issues are on the rise, our state’s existing policies fall short. Our state’s air quality monitoring infrastructure is outdated relative to technological progress and public health awareness. For instance, our state does not operate any air monitors for UFP; and, while our air monitoring network includes some monitors measuring fine particulate matter and black carbon, there are often too few near roadways, ports, or airports necessary to identify pollution hotspots and corridors.
The Air Quality Bill went long way in addressing these public health gaps. The bill would have expanded air monitoring for black carbon, UFP, and criteria pollutants in hotspots. This monitoring would provide critical information that will enable Massachusetts to set reasonable and necessary air quality improvement targets to be reached by the end of this decade.
The Air Quality Bill also addressed indoor air quality. It would have required the installation of air filters in critical existing indoor spaces within 200 meters of congested roadways, such as schools, residential buildings with more than two tenant-occupied units, commercial buildings with more than five full-time employees, and correctional facilities.
Furthermore, the Air Quality Bill tackled mold enforcement, a critical issue in low- income housing areas, by adding enforcement provisions to the state sanitary code. This is a major priority for Massachusetts Environmental Justice Table members in Springfield. Finally, the Bill would have required upgrades to building codes to prevent the installation of new gas stoves, a major air contaminant for residential spaces.
As the recent Massachusetts air pollution study authors stated:, “the obstacles to air pollution control are no longer technical. They are economic and political.” Massachusetts needs air quality legislation to become law to improve public health for current and future generations. Massachusetts needs air quality laws that ensure environmental justice populations have an equal chance to thrive. We look forward to working with legislators next session to make progress on air quality.
Maria Belen Power is the Associate Executive Director of GreenRoots and co-convener of the EJ Table. Sofia Owen is the Staff Attorney at Alternatives for Community & Environment and co-convener of the EJ Table. Ellin Reisner is the President of Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership. Karl/Claire Muller is the Movement Building Director at Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network. Staci Rubin is the Vice President, Environmental Justice at the Conservation Law Foundation.
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