Jul 27, 2022 - News

The air in Boston isn't as safe as we think

The air we breathe in the Greater Boston area might be killing us without us realizing it, as a recent study suggests.

What's happening: The study, released last week by the Global Observatory on Planetary Health at Boston College, details the first town-by-town estimates of per capita mortality rates traced back to air pollution.

  • Massachusetts cities and towns reported particle pollution levels below the Environmental Protection Agency's standards, meaning the air is considered safe.
  • Yes, but: They still reported conditions linked to airborne pollution, including asthma, heart disease, cancer, stroke and IQ loss. The study attributes 2,780 deaths in Massachusetts in 2019 to air pollution.

Why it matters: The air in the U.S. might look better than the smoggy skies in parts of India and China, but air pollution here still contributed to 197,000 deaths in 2019, the study suggests.

What they're saying: In high-income countries like the U.S., "pollution's health impacts may not be immediately visible," the authors wrote.

  • "There is danger that pollution will be regarded as a solved problem and that progress against pollution will stall," says the report, which recommends tightening current EPA standards.

What they did: The authors used EPA and state data to look at two factors: particle pollution in the air and deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke — illnesses which previous research has linked to air pollution.

  • They also collected data on pediatric asthma cases and IQ levels among children.
  • The authors then broke down the air pollution levels and deaths from air-pollution-linked illnesses in each city and town in Massachusetts.

By the numbers: The death rate in Massachusetts cities and towns with more than 25,000 people remained under 1 per 1,000 residents, but in a state with more than 7 million residents, that translates to thousands of deaths in 2019 alone.

Zoom in: Boston reported a death rate of 0.32 per capita, per the observatory's map tool.

  • The study tied 91 deaths in 2019 to air pollution.
  • Boston also had 722 pediatric asthma cases that year, per the study.

Plus: Dedham, Medford, Weymouth and Quincy had among the highest rates of pollution-related deaths in the Greater Boston area.

Yes, but: The authors noted several limitations, including the absence of granular data that could have helped them track the impact in majority-minority neighborhoods.

  • The study also looks at IQ loss traced back to air pollution, but the authors say they lacked the data to dive deeper into how particle pollution levels affect children's cognitive functioning.

The bottom line: Our air isn't as clean as we think it is, and under the current EPA standards, people are getting sick.


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