Breathing Boston air is like smoking 5 cigarettes a year

This site converted air pollution into a cigarette measurement.

In Massachusetts, 16.1 percent of the adult population are current cigarette smokers.
In Massachusetts, 16.1 percent of the adult population are current cigarette smokers. –AP Photo/Paul Sancya

The areas where you can smoke a cigarette have been shrinking over the years. Smokers have been pushed out of bars and restaurants, ushered 25-feet away from doors, and even banned from Boston Common.

But it turns out, just breathing Boston air is as bad as smoking five cigarettes a year, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency measured how air pollutants affect people in cities, and Vivergy, a site that helps people gauge their negative impact on local health through air pollution contributions, put the data into an interactive map tool called Share My Air.

Share My Air draws numbers averaged from the past 24 hours, so it can change throughout the day. This data came from 10 a.m. Friday morning.

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Based on projected year-long pollution, living in Boston is like living with a smoker for 3 months. Even just six months in the city is equal to spending 23 minutes in a car with a smoker each day.

But is air pollution equal to cigarette smoke? Kevin Kononenko, the founder of Vivergy and a Boston native, said that since people have a hard time connecting to traditional air pollution measurements, he wanted to find a way to make them relate.

He interviewed parents around the topics of the environment and children’s health, and found that people were more animated when talking about health—and specifically, how they work to keep their kids away from secondhand smoke. Kononenko looked for a way to connect the two, and found studies that specifically equated air pollution to cigarette smoke.

“It’s an easier way for people to understand why noticing pollution is important,’’ he said.

Studies in both air pollution and exposure science use the measurement of particulate matter, meaning 2.5 micrometers or less. That’s about 1/10th the width of the human hair.

“These are very fine particles, and those particles are particularly dangerous because they’re so small, they can penetrate past the body’s natural defense system,’’ said John Walke, the Clean Air Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means they easily go into our heart, lungs, and blood stream. “They’re one of the most dangerous and deadly air pollutants we worry about.’’

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Five cigarettes a year doesn’t sound so bad—especially to the more than 815,000 people who identify as smokers in Massachusetts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—but one cigarette does more harm than you think.

According to Oxygen.org, after just one cigarette, carbon monoxide levels in the lungs increase, and nicotine reaches the brain and muscle tissue—increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, while also increasing tension in the muscles, stomach secretions, and changes in brain activity. The smoke affects resistance in the airways leading to your lungs, and reduces lung capacity.

Still, the EPA’s AirNow database shows Massachusetts has a good air quality index, with “air pollution that poses little or no risk,’’ and Walke confirmed that Massachusetts meets the current health standard.

There is another form of air pollution to worry about: ground level ozone, more commonly called smog. The health standard for smog was last updated in 2008, but the EPA said last year that it believes that health standard to be unsafe, according to Walke.

“And not just modestly unsafe, but unsafe to a degree that the agency has proposed to materially strengthen the smog health standard,’’ he said. That ruling is expected October 1.

Currently, most of Massachusetts meets the smog health standard, but Walke expects some counties won’t after that change. That might not be all of the state’s own fault, though.

“Some of the highest levels of air pollution that Boston receives are actually from polluting facilities hundreds of miles upwind, Walke said. “So you have power plants that burn coal in the Midwest, and their smog and soot [particulate matter] end up in Boston.’’

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It’s for this reason, he said, that in the air-pollution world, New England is colloquially known as “the end of the tail pipe of the United States.’’

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