Chemicals in Air Pollution Linked with Death, Illness and Lowered IQ: Study

Another scientific study has demonstrated the close link between toxic chemicals in air pollution and public health problems.  This new study is the first to examine far-reaching public health consequences of air pollution in a U.S. state on a town-by-town basis. The study found air-pollution-related disease, death and IQ loss occurred in every city and town studied, regardless of demographics or income level. Highest rates were in the most economically disadvantaged and socially under-served cities and towns.

Study overview

The research team studied pollution levels in Massachusetts* and compared them to incidents of serious illness**, deaths and IQ loss in children in the area.  (Massachusetts meets federal clean air guidelines and air pollution in the U.S. has declined 70 percent since the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s.)  The team determined levels for all cities and towns using available data and computer modeling.

*More than 95 percent of air pollution in Massachusetts results from the combustion of fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and ships produced two-thirds of pollutant emissions-655,000 tons — in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available. Power plants, industrial facilities, and home heating and cooking produced 283,000 tons. In all, these sources emitted 938,000 tons of pollutants.

**Fine particulate air pollution is linked to multiple non-communicable diseases in adults, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer and diabetes. Among infants and children air pollution increases risk for premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, impaired lung development, and asthma.

Study Findings

All of these health effects occurred at pollution levels below current EPA standards***.

Air pollution chemicals are a silent killer responsible for an estimated 2,780 deaths a year in Massachusetts, and for measurable cognitive loss in children exposed to fine particulate pollutants in the air they breathe.

Of the 2,780 deaths attributable to air pollution in Massachusetts in 2019, at least 2,185 were due to lung cancer 1,677 to heart disease, 343 to chronic lung disease, and 200 to stroke.

Air pollution was responsible for 15,386 cases of pediatric asthma and an estimated 308 low-birth weight babies (5.5 lbs. or less).

The scientists estimate the cumulative impact of exposure to air pollution 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.  IQ loss impairs children’s school performance and reduces graduation rates.

***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.


Journal Reference:  Philip J. Landrigan, Samantha Fisher, Maureen E. Kenny, Brittney Gedeon, Luke Bryan, Jenna Mu, David Bellinger. A replicable strategy for mapping air pollution’s community-level health impacts and catalyzing prevention. Environmental Health, 2022; 21 (1)                                      DOI: 10.1186/s12940-022-00879-3