Air quality in Massachusetts improved between 2017 and 2019, according to a "State of the Air" report released today from the American Lung Association. Though the state still sees unhealthy spikes of smog and soot, and pockets of disparities remain, the report shows that air pollution was trending down in the state overall even before COVID-19 stopped traffic in its tracks.
"We really were cleaning the air at a good, steady pace, even in the years leading up to the pandemic," says Jonathan Levy, a professor of Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health, who was not affiliated with the report.
Levy says the state has benefitted from reduced coal plant pollution, which comes mostly from the Midwest but can blow into New England. But he says there’s still plenty of local pollution — like exhaust from highway traffic — which usually hits communities of color hardest. Nationwide, people of color are 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air, according to the report. "A lot of counties that were receiving a D grade are now receiving a C grade," Levy says. "So that's an improvement, and that's great to see. But it's not all the way there."
“In Massachusetts we're on the right track when it comes to improving air quality," says American Lung Association Director for Advocacy in Massachusetts Trevor Summerfield. "I think the biggest challenge now is complacency."
The annual “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthy levels of particle pollution and ozone — better known as "soot" and "smog." Each report covers a three-year period; this year's includes 2017-2019. Exposure to high levels of soot and smog can cause both short term and chronic health problems, including increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease and severe asthma attacks. Air pollution has also been linked to reproductive harm and lung cancer.
This year's report found that year-round particle pollution levels in the Boston metro area were lower than in last year’s report, marking a "stark difference" from other Northeastern cities. The report also named both Boston and Springfield among the cleanest cities for short-term particle pollution.
Compared to the 2020 report, the Boston and Springfield metro areas experienced fewer unhealthy days of high ozone, or smog, with Springfield showing some of the most notable improvements in the Northeast. However, millions of people in the Boston area are still exposed to air earning D or F grades for unhealthy ozone levels, which usually spike during hot summer days that are likely to increase with climate change.
Levy says that researchers are curious to see how the pandemic factors into future reports, and whether the widespread shutdowns have any lasting effects.
"We'll definitely see some shifts in patterns," says Levy. "The question is which of these changes are sustainable over time? Is the blip just tied to how we shifted our patterns in the short term, or are there systemic changes in how we how we work that that might lead to longer term changes in air quality?"
This year’s report found that nationwide, more than 4 in 10 people live with polluted air. And the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the connections between air pollution, health disparities and racial injustice.
"Going forward, hopefully the state of Massachusetts — as well as people across the country — can really look at ways to address climate change and reduce air pollution, especially in communities where there are large concentrations of people of color, because they're bearing the burden of this pollution," says Summerfield. "If there's anything more we can do on that front as a society, I think we would all be better off."