BOSTON (SHNS) – On the heels of a law that put a greater emphasis on equity in state climate policy, the Public Health Committee heard testimony Tuesday in support of legislation to address air pollution and its health consequences, particularly in neighborhoods where residents have low incomes, where more than a quarter of the population is non-white, or where more than a quarter of households do not speak English.
Of particular concern, as the Metropolitan Area Planning Council pointed out in a white paper published Monday that detailed links between transportation emissions and negative health effects, is ultrafine particle pollution (UFP) from vehicles. Those tiny particles tend to concentrate within about 500 feet of their source, putting people who live along major roadways at an increased risk of UFP-related health issues.
“Science shows us that exposure to any amount of particulate matter increases the risk of developing numerous diseases. This is of particular concern for my district, as Somerville contains multiple environmental justice communities living near I-93 and McGrath Highway/Mystic Avenue,” Rep. Christine Barber said. “I continue to collaborate with the legislative Somerville delegation, City Councilors and activists to keep the pressure on MassDOT and the federal government to concretely address the harms particulate matter does to our community members.”
Highway pollution is particularly problematic for many environmental justice communities, low-income neighborhoods or communities of color that have historically been disproportionately impacted by pollution and often are least able to adapt to a changing climate.
“Due to racially inequitable transportation and housing policy, more residents of color live close to high-polluting roads and breathe polluted air, indoors and outdoors,” MAPC wrote in its report.
A bill (H 2230/S 1447) filed by Barber, Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge and Sen. Patricia Jehlen of Somerville would require the executive branch to convene a technical advisory committee made up of environmental justice community residents who live near major roadways, experts in air monitoring and labor representatives to identify likely air pollution hotspots across the state.
By mid-2022, the administration would be required to install and operate air quality monitors in at least eight likely pollution hotspots to set baseline levels by the end of the year. After that, the state would be required to set annual targets to decrease air pollution between 2023 and 2035 with a mandate of 50 percent reduction from baseline levels by 2030 and a 75 percent reduction by 2035.
It would also require building code updates that would prohibit the new installation of gas stoves in residential buildings, require advanced HVAC filtration systems for newly-built daycare centers, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more, and require that air filters be installed in existing schools, residential buildings with more than two tenant-occupied units, certain commercial buildings, and correctional facilities within 200 meters of congested roadways.
Connolly said he thinks the bill aims “to take that next step to start building upon those environmental justice provisions that we all included in the recent [climate] roadmap law” and to get state laws and policies to recognize the harm caused by air pollution, especially on vulnerable residents.
“We’re in this moment when we are looking to address the legacy and the continuing impacts of systemic racism. This is such a critical step that we can take; we know that the inequitable exposure of transportation-related pollution has really hit communities of color and environmental justice communities all around our commonwealth,” Connolly said. “And so I think we owe it to all of our constituents, particularly the most vulnerable, to really grapple with the material in this bill and hopefully, working closely with the chairs and the members of the committee, find a way to move it forward this session.”
Tuesday’s hearing also featured a raft of testimony on a Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Jack Lewis bill (S 1387/H 2350) that would ban PFAS chemicals from cookware, personal care products, carpets, rugs, furniture textiles, and from aftermarket sprays applied to those products.
The dangers emanating from the thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have become an increasingly urgent topic of conversation on Beacon Hill because the man-made chemicals do not decompose entirely in the environment and are found in all sorts of common household items. Experts caution that exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause health problems, particularly in those who are immunocompromised, pregnant women, and infants.
“Synthetic fluorinated petrochemicals are the most serious toxic challenge we are facing,” Clint Richmond of the Massachusetts Sierra Club said. “These ‘forever chemicals’ can harm us and the environment even in infinitesimal quantities yet Federal regulation remains lacking. Therefore states must act now to protect their residents.”
PFAS chemicals have been on the Beacon Hill radar for a few years, though it remains an emerging concern. Late last year, the Department of Environmental Protection went further than federal guidelines and issued final rules for soil and groundwater cleanup and implemented final regulations setting the maximum contaminant level in drinking water for six PFAS compounds at 20 parts per trillion.
Since then, 51 public water systems — which range in scope from covering entire towns to serving individual housing developments — have found PFAS chemicals at a concentration above the maximum contaminant level in at least one test, according to a DEP online map. Most of the 51 took actions to provide their customers with drinking water that does not exceed the standard, DEP said.
A PFAS Interagency Task Force, created in the fiscal year 2021 state budget, is studying how PFAS chemicals impact the environment, who is responsible for contamination and remediation, and what steps Beacon Hill can take to address the growing concern. A report is due from the task force by Dec. 31.