New study attributes thousands of Mass. deaths to air pollution

Boston College researchers released searchable, town-by-town data.

Researchers estimate that almost 2,800 Massachusetts residents died from the effects of air pollution in 2019. Charlie Riedel/Associated Press File Photo

Thousands of Massachusetts residents are estimated to have died in 2019 from a silent, invisible killer: air pollution. Researchers at Boston College released their findings from 2019 data, the most recently available to them, in a new study this week. For the first time ever, air pollution data was also released on a town-by-town basis for each community in Massachusetts. 

In total, the effects of air pollution were responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths throughout the state in 2019, according to the study. Every town, from the tip of Cape Cod to the Berkshires, was impacted by air-pollution-related disease, death and IQ loss regardless of demographics or income level. However researchers did find that the highest rates of these effects occurred in the most economically disadvantaged and socially underserved municipalities. 


Of those 2,780 deaths, at least 2,185 were attributable to lung cancer, 1,677 to heart disease, 343 to chronic lung disease, and 200 to stroke, according to the study. 

“Despite all the progress the state has made in regulating air pollution, it still causes death and disease in every single city and town across the Commonwealth,” lead author Philip Landrigan of Boston College’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health told The Boston Globe

Children appeared to be particularly vulnerable. Air pollution caused an estimated 308 babies to be born with a low birth weight, defined as those newborns weighing less than five and a half pounds. On top of that, researchers attributed 15,386 cases of pediatric asthma to air pollution. The cumulative impact on childhood cognitive development in 2019 was a loss of almost 2 million Performance IQ points, or just over two IQ points for the average child. This loss of IQ impairs the school performance of children and decreases graduation rates, the researchers found. 

Most of the air pollution in the state came from mobile sources like cars, trucks, buses, planes, and ships. Those mobile sources emit about 655,000 tons of fine particulate pollutants per year. Stationary sources like industrial facilities and residential heating and cooking systems are responsible for about 283,000 tons of fine particulate pollutants per year, according to the study. 


More than 95 percent of air pollution in the state comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. 

Those behind the study noted that all these health effects occurred at pollution levels below current standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2019, the average level of fine particulate pollution across the state was 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the report. Worcester County recorded a low of 2.77 micrograms per cubic meter, while Suffolk County had a high of 8.26. The EPA standard for this measurement is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, while the World Health Organization’s recommended guideline is 5. 

Nationally, air pollution caused almost 200,000 deaths in 2019, according to Boston College. This is more than the number of deaths caused by stroke, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes. 

The new town-by-town data for Massachusetts included in this study is notable because this type of information is not normally available due to a lack of air quality monitoring stations throughout the state. Researchers found pollution levels for every city and town using available data and computer modeling, according to Boston College.

The town-by-town data is available to search online.

Even within large towns and cities, air quality can vary by location. To account for this, Landrigan said that more ways to monitor pollution levels are needed. 


“Anybody who lives in Boston knows very well that the air quality in South Boston is not the same as the air quality in West Roxbury or in Hyde Park,” he told the Globe. “The only way you can pinpoint exactly what’s going on in a particular community is to have data from that community.”

The report laid out a long list of recommendations for local and state leaders. This includes:

  • Converting municipal fleets to eclectic vehicles and installing solar panels on public buildings.
  • Urging the EPA to tighten federal air quality standards.
  • Adding more air quality monitoring stations, especially in economically disadvantaged and socially vulnerable communities.
  • Creating an open-access dashboard operated by the state government that shows data on pollution-related disease and death in each county, city, and town in Massachusetts. 
  • Reducing the reliance on natural gas for power generation and heating. 


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