Against a backdrop of weakened federal pollution control regulations, Boston College’s Global Observatory on Pollution and Health will conduct a study of air pollution-related deaths and illness, as well as cognitive loss among children, in Massachusetts. The project is supported by an $80,000 award from the Barr Foundation.
The study will be the first to compile data on a town-by-town, city-by-city basis, said Observatory Director and Professor of Biology Philip Landrigan, M.D., the principal investigator on the project.
The award will support an analysis of air pollution and health data from established government agencies and research organizations to assess the toll air pollution takes on public health, said Landrigan. Airborne pollutants are recognized as a major cause of disease, disability and premature death around the world.
In 2017, despite strong state-based pollution controls, there were an estimated 1,546 deaths caused by air pollution in Massachusetts, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Globally, air pollution accounts for 5 million premature deaths a year, according to findings from the landmark 2017 report of The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, which Landrigan co-chaired.
“This remains an important problem,” said Landrigan, whose observatory is the first initiative of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, the centerpiece of a 155,000-square-feet research center currently under construction and slated to open next year.
“Approximately 1,500 deaths a year is a lot of preventable deaths,” he added. “It may be better than 50 years ago, but it is still a significant problem. If we can detail the magnitude of the problem for a particular city or town—identifying deaths, or lost IQ points in children—we think that is going to stimulate action. We want people to understand the risks and bring it home so it is not something that is abstract.”
Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, levels of air pollution have fallen across the U.S. and in Massachusetts. Across the country, levels of the six major air pollutants have declined by 70 percent and a milestone triumph in this effort was the reduction of airborne lead pollution by the removal of lead from gasoline, an initiative that Landrigan helped to lead in the 1970s.
“In the three years since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017, control of air pollution in the United States has stalled,” according to the grant proposal. “This slowdown reflects a series of regulatory rollbacks by the Trump administration that have weakened environmental standards and shredded health protections.”
Regulatory rollbacks include: replacement of the Clean Power Plan that regulated emissions from coal-fired power plants by a scheme that that allows states to set their own emissions standards; weakening of emissions standards for cars, trucks and buses; and deregulation of airborne releases from oil and gas extraction, Landrigan said.
Already, deaths due to air pollution have begun to increase across the U.S., with the largest increases in Midwestern and Southern states that lead in coal mining, oil drilling and natural gas extraction, according to Landrigan.