“Particulate Policy” White Paper Focuses on Air Quality Policy Solutions

Paticulate Policy Title Card

"Particulate Policy" White Paper Focuses on Air Quality Policy Solutions

Even though we often can’t see it, air pollution – specifically particle pollution – is the most serious environmental health hazard in the world. In the Boston area, most of this pollution comes from the fossil-fuel burning vehicles that transport us across town and across the country.  

Today, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council and Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) released “Particulate Policy: An argument for a regulatory approach to transportation-related ultrafine particle exposure.” The paper discusses the basics of particle matter pollution and lays out state and local policy changes that could protect residents.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the impact of air pollution on our health. “You can overlay the map of the highway pollution and you can look at the COVID-19 map, it looks like the exactly same map,” said State Representative Mike Connolly at a May 26 Highway Justice for People rally.  And the impacts aren’t equal: a May 2020 MAPC analysis found that Greater Boston residents of color are more likely to live near major traffic corridors with higher pollution intensities.  

Particulate Policy is focused on particle matter, a subset of air pollutants, but one of special concern due to their small size and ability to penetrate tissues and organs. Even before our current crisis, we knew that indoor and outdoor air pollution was a leading cause of death and illness. Air pollution is associated with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, asthma—and COVID-19.   

As highlighted in the Highway Justice for People rally, states and local governments have an important role to play in advancing building design, land use practices, and transportation policies that reduce people’s exposure to air pollution. The rally specifically focused on the environmental hazards posed by two major highways, McGrath and I-93, which bisect Somerville neighborhoods, but Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley pointed out that the impacts of air pollution aren’t unique to Somerville.  

“Injustice and oppression of the minoritized and marginalized is usually intersectional,” she said at the rally. “So we have to take a moment to speak to the intersectionality of our organizing and in our future, not just for this corridor but for the thousands like it in this country.” 

The Recommendations

Particulate Policy is a direct response to this call for action. It lays out specific interventions that those looking to protect Environmental Justice communities can call for, including: 

High-efficiency air filtration standards for new and existing buildings 

Indoor air filtration systems can reduce ultrafine particle (UFP) emissions in homes, schools, and other buildings near highways and roadways.

Mandating stricter building codes or standards to require high-quality filters is not possible at the municipal level in Massachusetts, however.

Policymakers can: 

  • Push for changes to the International Building code that forms that basis for the Massachusetts code.   
  • Modify the state building code to mandate health protective levels of filtration for new construction and major renovations.
  • Require quality filtration for certain businesses, such as childcare facilities, as a condition of licensure.  
  • Require that developments built under green building policies meet high-efficiency filtration recommendations.  
  • Expand low-income home energy assistance programs to subsidize utility costs for running portable air filters or air conditioning.  

Reducing traffic-related air pollution exposure  

In general, the closer a building is to a highway or busy street, the more air pollution occupants are exposed to. Policymakers could make land use decisions with this in mind: 

  • Install noise barriers (also known as sound walls) between busy corridors and buildings. Noise barriers don’t only protect adjacent buildings from highway noise: they can also reduce exposure to traffic-related air pollution.  
  • Change neighborhood plans, zoning codes, or site plan/subdivision reviews to locate new occupied buildings as far as possible from transportation corridors; restrict balconies over busy roads; or place parking structures next to highways to shield residential buildings. 
  • Redesign parks near busy roads to include a barrier, such as climbing walls or thick vegetation, alongside the roads 

Transportation policy changes  

Policymakers and transportation planners can: 

  • Mitigate air pollution on new or revised roadways through traffic management solutions 
  • Take steps to reduce air pollution’s root cause: a fossil fueled powered, single-occupant vehicle fleet. These include improving our public transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure; shifting to electrification; and joining regional policy initiatives such as the Transportation Climate Initiative.  

Massachusetts Legislation 

“An Act to improve outdoor and indoor air quality for communities burdened by transportation pollution,” sponsored by Rep. Christine Barber and Sen. Patricia Jehlen, aims to improve indoor and outdoor air quality, especially for EJ populations and those communities burdened by transportation-related emissions. 

This bill would:  

  • Require installation of air filters in existing eligible buildings, such as schools, residential buildings with more than 2 tenant-occupied units, certain commercial buildings, and correctional facilities within 200 meters of congested roadways. 
  • Require advanced HVAC filtration systems (e.g., MERV 16) for new eligible buildings, such as day care facilities, residential developments, hospitals, schools, long-term care facilities, school aged child care programs, temporary shelters, nursing homes.  
  • Upgrade building codes to prevent the installation of new gas stoves.  
  • Update the state sanitary code to improve mold enforcement.  
  • Expand outdoor air monitoring for black carbon, ultrafine particulate matter, and criteria pollutants in pollution hotspots.  
  • Set and achieve ambitious air quality targets by 2030 and 2035. 

Want to learn more about particle pollution and how we can reduce it?