Air pollution inequality growing in Massachusetts

A flag near the Somerville Housing Authority, a housing development agency located along I-93. Image by Tyler Haughn.
A flag near the Somerville Housing Authority, a housing development agency located along I-93. Image by Tyler Haughn.

By Tyler Haughn

While Somerville continues to endure the brunt of traffic-related pollution filtering in from Interstate 93, experts have become increasingly worried about air pollution inequality throughout Massachusetts.

Air quality in Massachusetts has seen some improvements in recent times. A “State of the Air” report compiled by the American Lung Association reveals the Northeastern state’s progress in reducing its overall air pollution and ozone levels. The same report found particle pollution is considerably lower than in previous years.

“Air quality has gotten much, much better in Massachusetts and in the Boston metro area over the past couple of decades,” Jon Levy, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, said.

There are occasional increases in the amount of soot and smog that envelops the greater Boston area, especially on hot summer days. Another positive is that all of this progress was made even before the pandemic lowered Boston’s traffic levels.

Despite the state’s promising improvements in reducing air pollution, exposure inequality remains an issue. This worrying pattern is especially evident in the Greater Boston area. Levy says exposure inequalities typically correlate alongside racial, income and education lines.

A breakdown of the Boston transportation sector’s reliance on fossil fuels. Courtesy of Boston.Gov.

“Low-income communities and communities of color typically experience higher exposures to many air pollutants,” Levy said. “Across a number of different pollution source types, the common thread is that if you’re wealthier, you can live farther away from the highway or you can have the political power to keep the industrial source out of your community. This means you get this confluence of pollution sources and exposures that exist in a lot of lower-income communities.”

Levy attributes the state’s reduced ambient air pollution to less coal plant activity. This type of pollution occasionally finds its way into New England primarily from the Midwest. However, there are still plenty of other local pollution sources.

The most concerning pollution type is emissions generated by highway traffic. Exhaust from vehicles affects communities of color more frequently compared to white non-Hispanic communities. People of color are 61% more likely to reside in an area with unhealthy air in the United States.

Levy co-authored a study that tracked disparities in air pollution exposure across Massachusetts. Levy found that average exposure levels to particulate matter decreased in Massachusetts. Despite this progress, Black populations continue to bear the brunt of the exposure, followed by Hispanic populations.

Levy said Massachusetts must prioritize finding new ways to innovate its transportation sector by overhauling energy consumption. Otherwise, these pollution exposure inequalities may keep growing.

“We’ve built up a lot of infrastructure in our society, whether related to transportation or how we heat our homes or how we power electricity,” Levy said. “All of these energy sources historically have contributed to air pollution both locally and globally. So, there’s a lot of infrastructure there that has to be addressed going forward.”

Jonathan Buonocore, a research scientist at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, also said that Massachusetts needs to continue reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. While there is no way to attribute air pollution to one exclusive source, Buonocore said transportation in Massachusetts is far too reliant on fossil fuels.

Boston is home to a robust transportation system that connects commuters around its surrounding areas. More than half of the city’s residents use a transportation method other than a car to reach their workplaces. Boston’s two most commonly used energy sources are both fossil fuels: gasoline and diesel.

An overview of Boston’s efforts to reduce the number of greenhouse gases it emits. Courtesy of Boston.Gov

“The answer is to reduce air pollution,” Bounocore said. “Since a good portion of air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, transitioning away from fossil fuels would take care of a lot of that health impact.”

Globally, air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for an estimated 8 million deaths in 2018 alone.

To its credit, Massachusetts has made positive strides to reduce its air pollution levels, especially in densely populated Boston. However, there are still many pockets throughout Boston and other parts of the state containing unequal amounts of air pollution.

Levy said finding ways to address these imbalances is the most pressing issue from an environmental perspective.

“I don’t think we’ve figured out yet how to get to a truly sustainable transportation system that is maximally beneficial for health,” Levy said.

About Tyler Haughn 4 Articles
Tyler Haughn is a recent graduate of Emerson College's graduate journalism program. Tyler is excited to begin his new role as a Gannett/USA Today Network reporter at the Times-Mail in Bedford, Indiana.