Air pollution caused 2,780 deaths, illnesses, and IQ loss in children in Massachusetts in 2019: Research methodology offers a model that can be followed in other states using public data and open-source software

Air pollution remains a silent killer in Massachusetts, responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths a year and for measurable cognitive loss in Bay State children exposed to fine particulate pollutants in the air they breathe, according to a new study by researchers at Boston College’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health.

The study was supported by the Barr Foundation and is the first to examine far-reaching public health consequences of air pollution in the state on a town-by-town basis. The study found air-pollution-related disease, death and IQ loss occur in every city and town regardless of demographics or income level. Highest rates were in the most economically disadvantaged and socially underserved cities and towns.

The Boston College team estimates the cumulative impact on childhood cognitive development in Massachusetts in 2019 was a loss of almost 2 million Performance IQ points, or more than 2 IQ points for the average child, according to the report, published today in the journal Environmental Health. IQ loss impairs children’s school performance and reduces graduation rates, the team noted.

“We are talking about the impacts of air pollution at a very local level in Massachusetts — not just statewide,” said lead author Boston College Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, MD, director of the Observatory. “This report gives the people in every city and town the opportunity to see for themselves the quality of the air they and their families are breathing and the dangerous health implications for both adults and children as a consequence of air pollution.”

“All of these health effects occurred at pollution levels below current EPA standards,” Landrigan noted.

The average level of fine particulate pollution across Massachusetts in 2019 was 6.3 micrograms per cubic meter, and levels ranged from a low of 2.77 micrograms per cubic meter in Worcester County to a high of 8.26 in Suffolk County. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard is 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and the World Health Organization’s recommended guideline is 5.

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