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Who gets to breathe clean air?

Clean Heat, Clean Air | Educational Building Block #6

Welcome to the Massachusetts Clean Heat, Clean Air campaign educational building block series! This series was created by Mothers Out Front members to share key concepts and terms from our campaign for healthy homes & communities. These building blocks are intended to be short, easy learning opportunities for busy advocates.

Who gets to breathe clean air?

Dirty air is causing a global public health crisis. Every minute, a child dies of illness caused by air pollution. Every minute, ten adults die, prematurely, because of dirty air inhaled during their lifetime…Everyone needs to breathe clean air. That billions of people today are breathing dirty, deadly air constitutes a global health, environmental and human rights crisis.”

David R. Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment [source]

Clean air should be a human right. Instead, in the United States, more than 40% of residents breathe polluted air, with people of color three times more likely to be exposed to air pollution than white people [source]. In the United States and globally, low-income communities and communities of color are the most at risk of breathing polluted air.

In Massachusetts, highways and industrial facilities are concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color. As a result, these communities then suffer from higher levels of air pollution and associated health issues than affluent, white communities. The unequal effects of air pollution are a legacy of redlining, racism, and economic inequality – and in Massachusetts, these air quality disparities have actually worsened overtime [source].

The Green Justice Coalition in Massachusetts hosts annual #LetUsBreathe events to highlight the connection between environmental racism, the climate crisis, and workers’ rights. (Image Credit: Green Justice Coalition)

Sources of Air Pollution

Burning fossil fuels is a critical source of air pollution. A recent study found that 13% of all deaths in the United States can be attributed to fossil fuel combustion [source]. (Image Source: World Health Organization)

Outdoor air pollution is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels in buildings and for transportation. Outdoor air pollution can also be caused by incinerating trash, by livestock waste and fertilizer from agriculture, and by natural causes such as dust and wildfires. In the United States, climate activists are increasingly focusing on gas stoves and ovens as a source of indoor air pollution. In homes that do not vent their gas stoves to the outdoors during cooking, indoor air pollution exceeds outdoor air pollution safe standards more than 80% of the time in homes that are 1,500 square feet or smaller [source].

Climate change is worsening air pollution, with higher temperatures leading to an increase in ozone, pollen, and particulate air matter [source].

Health Effects of Air Pollution

Breathing polluted air irritates your eyes, nose, and throat. Then, as tiny particles of pollutants travel into your lungs and through your body, they can cause serious long-term health effects. Air pollution damages the lungs, pancreas, heart, and brain – and children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults. 

Image Source: How Air Pollution Affects Your Health, The Guardian. Since this graphic was posted in 2016, the EPA has classified Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), one of the pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels, as a cause of asthma and not just linked to asthma.

Mothers Out Front Massachusetts Local Campaigns 

Two Mothers Out Front MA teams are currently working on local campaigns to ensure access to clean air. The East Boston MOF team is campaigning to install air filters in local schools and the Somerville team belongs to a coalition working towards improving the safety and environmental impact of a busy highway.

Mothers Out Front East Boston 

BOSTON, MA – NOVEMBER 2019: Members of the East Boston Mothers Out Front chapter discuss air pollution. (Photo By Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

East Boston is a state-designated environmental justice community that is bordered and divided by major roadways, an airport, and fossil fuel storage. East Boston’s children inhale toxins from Logan airport and the community’s congested roads and waterways. Children in heavily polluted areas of East Boston are:

  • 3-4 times more likely to experience symptoms of asthma than children in other neighborhoods
  • 2x as likely to experience COPD (chronic obtrusive pulmonary disease)
  • More likely to experience negative impacts on development and school performance

The East Boston Mothers Out Front team is working to obtain HEPA air purifiers that remove ultrafine particulate pollution for public schools and childcare centers. Poor air quality is linked directly to lower cognitive performance – and recent studies have indicated that air filter installations can improve students’ learning outcomes [source].

Mothers Out Front Somerville

SOMERVILLE, MA – MAY 2021: Protesters call for highway safety and pollution and noise reduction. (Image Source: Julia Taliesin,

People living near highways and major roadways experience higher rates of lung cancer, asthma, and heart disease [source]. A June 2021 study attributed hundreds of deaths in Massachusetts and millions of dollars in health damage to road pollution [source].   

Somerville Mothers Out Front belongs to a coalition asking the MA Department of Transportation to improve local road safety and mitigate noise and air pollution along the I-93 corridor. The coalition includes Safe Streets of Somerville, The Welcome Project, Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, various elected officials, and others.

Key Terms: 

Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) – Particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less (about 1/30 the width of a human hair) composed of dust, smoke, dirt, and heavy metals. These particles are small enough to breach the respiratory tract and can travel throughout the body to cause lung cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses [source]. When you see a picture of a polluted city, you’re looking at fine particulate matter.

Ultrafine particles (“UFP” or PM0.1)Ultrafine particles are extremely tiny (so small they’re measured in nanometers!) and made up of sulfate, metals, and hydrocarbons. The EPA does not monitor particles in this range – even though they also contribute to myriad negative health effects. These particles are increasingly of interest to researchers studying the effects of highway and industry pollution on nearby communities [sources: 1, 2, 3, 4].

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) – Nitrogen dioxide is a gas released by burning fuel (e.g. combustion from cars, trucks, boilers, furnaces, and gas stoves). Breathing NO2 can cause and aggravate asthma and trigger other respiratory issues [source].

Deep Dive:

Header Image Source: Yulina Parshina-Kottas, “Bad Future, Better Future,” New York Times, April 18, 2021