Credit: Markus Spiske / Creative Commons

Massachusetts environmental justice activists are promoting a bill that would require the state to install more air quality monitors in areas vulnerable to transportation pollution.

The legislation is part of an effort to ensure communities that have borne a disproportionate share of diesel fumes and tailpipe emissions are able to reap the benefits of the state’s transition to cleaner energy. The information collected would be used to create plans to cut contaminants to a quarter of current levels by 2035.

“We want to address wrongs that were made decades ago but are still impacting our communities now,” said state Rep. Christine Barber, one of the sponsors of the bill.

The electrification of the transportation sector is a major component of Massachusetts’ plan for going carbon-neutral by 2050. However, simply reducing overall statewide transportation emissions is not enough, environmental justice activists say. They want the transition to be targeted at helping rectify some of the damage done by years of higher pollution levels in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“Even if we implement policies to lower transportation pollution, disparities in air pollution hotspots will continue to exist,” said Sofia Owen, staff attorney for environmental justice group Alternatives for Community and the Environment. “And in our minds that is unacceptable — we need to do more.”

Studies have found connections between living near highways and higher incidences of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart attacks, and cognitive difficulties. Research led by Tufts University from 2008 to 2018 in Somerville, part of Barber’s district, concluded that living close to a highway raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“This is real that people’s health is really affected by this,” said Barber, whose district includes hundreds of units of affordable housing adjacent to Interstate Highway 93, the major commuting road into Boston. “These are the communities that had higher COVID mortality as well.”

There is, however, a lack of data about pollution levels in individual neighborhoods, making it more difficult to effectively assess current damage, target improvements, and track progress. To address this problem, the air quality bill would require the state to deploy more monitors and to use technology that detects more pollutants than the existing network.

Currently, the state operates 23 air quality monitors from western Massachusetts to the tip of Cape Cod. These monitors measure a variety of pollutants, most commonly ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particles of pollutants, known as particulate matter. However, only a handful detect black carbon, a pollutant associated with asthma, lung cancer, and heart attacks.

None of the monitors measures the presence of ultrafine particulate matter, defined as particles smaller than one-tenth of a micron in size, roughly 1/700 the width of a human hair. Ultrafine particles are widely agreed to cause or worsen a range of conditions, including asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Their sources include vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions, and tobacco smoke.

“The existing network is aimed at monitoring for regional pollution,” said Staci Rubin, vice president of environmental justice for the Conservation Law Foundation. “It’s not good at detecting what are the real impacts locally to people who are living adjacent to busy roadways.”

The legislation would require monitors to be installed in at least eight areas determined to be air pollution hotspots. The precise locations would be determined by a committee made up of residents of environmental justice communities near major highways, labor representatives, and academics with expertise in air pollution and monitoring.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to limit it to environmental justice communities, but my guess is that there would be near total overlap,” Rubin said.

The monitors would collect data for six months in order to establish a baseline. The bill would require the information gathered to be publicly accessible and frequently updated. The data would then be used to set targets for reducing pollution levels by a minimum of 50% by 2030 and 75% by 2035.

The bill would also start the process of reducing the harm already being done by transportation pollution. Existing public and private schools, college classroom buildings, public housing, private multifamily residential buildings, corrections facilities, and commercial buildings within 200 meters of a transportation pollution source would be required to install air filters to improve indoor air quality. The state would fund the installations for schools and housing.

New schools, daycare facilities, group care facilities, and hospitals would be required to have air filters capable of stopping ultrafine particles.

“Our goal here is to ensure there is actually mitigation,” Owen said.

The bill received a hearing over the summer and supporters are now waiting to see if the public health committee will give it a favorable recommendation. Some 39 members of the state House and 12 state senators have signed on.

“I’m hopeful we can keep building momentum,” Barber said. “It is really necessary so environmental justice communities aren’t continuing to bear the brunt of these mistakes.”

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe,, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.