When you hear the word “pollution,” what do you think of? Perhaps you imagine an urban landscape wreathed in smog. Perhaps you see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive patch of waste in the middle of the ocean. Or maybe you picture barrels of toxic waste leaking into the soil.
Pollution is all these things and more. A pollutant is any kind of harmful substance introduced into the environment—air, water, or land. Some pollutants are natural, such as volcanic ash. However, most pollution comes from human activities. Many things that happen every day, from driving our cars to fertilizing crops, can pollute the environment. That threatens the health of all the plants, animals and whole ecosystems—including us.
Compared to other U.S. states, Massachusetts is cleaner than average. A 2021 ranking of all states in U.S. News rated Massachusetts seventeenth best for pollution levels. Its air and water quality scored even higher: number two out of 50, second only to Hawaii. However, when you look at specific types of pollution, it’s plain that there’s room for improvement.
Massachusetts is known as the Bay State, but the quality of its bays and other waterways is nothing to brag about. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives Massachusetts very mixed grades for water safety. It says most coastal waters in Massachusetts are safe for swimming, but most rivers and lakes are not. Only about half the state’s rivers, less than half its bays, and almost no lakes can support healthy aquatic life. And fish caught anywhere in the state aren’t safe to eat.
The one area where the state scores very well is the quality of its drinking water. The EPA reports that 96% of all Massachusetts water systems, serving 91% of the population, meet its safety standards. According to U.S. News, the state has only 0.34 drinking water violation points per 100,000 residents. That’s far less than the national average of 2.08 points per 100,000.
The air quality in Massachusetts is also above average. U.S. News says the state typically experiences subpar air quality only 35 days a year, compared to 104 nationwide. The 2022 State of the Air report from the Americal Lung Association (ALA) backs this up. It gives most Massachusetts counties A grades for their levels of particle pollution, which can cause lung irritation and disease.
However, the state’s ratings for levels of ozone, the main component of smog, aren’t as impressive. Several counties get C and D grades, and one, Bristol County, has an F. On the plus side, that’s an improvement over previous years, when multiple counties had failing grades.
Terrestrial pollution is any type of pollution that occurs on land. According to U.S. News, Massachusetts rates above average in this area as well. It has 401 pounds of industrial toxins per square mile of area, compared to a national average of 959 pounds.
Another measure of land pollution is the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which measures releases of specific harmful chemicals. According to the TRI, Massachusetts had 3.9 million pounds of total releases in 2021, including 39,000 pounds on land. Based on toxic releases per square mile, the Bay State ranks 35th out of 56 states and territories. That puts its pollution levels above average, but not near the top.
A top cause of pollution in Massachusetts is the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles and buildings. A 2023 Boston College report found that it was responsible for over 95% of the state’s air pollution. Other major problems include stormwater runoff, sewage, and emerging contaminants.
According to the Boston College report, over two-thirds of all the state’s particulate air pollution comes from vehicles. This category includes cars, trucks, buses, trains, and airplanes. Vehicle emissions also produce ozone and other pollutants responsible for lung disease, acid rain, and climate change.
The other one-third of fossil fuel emissions in Massachusetts comes from stationary sources. This includes factories, power plants, and homes that use fossil fuel for heating and cooking. Factories and other sites that produce a lot of pollution in one place are sometimes called point sources.
When rainwater falls on paved areas, it can’t soak into the ground. Instead, it runs off along streets and sidewalks, picking up a variety of pollutants. In Massachusetts, stormwater can carry garbage, dirt, oil and other automotive chemicals, pesticide and fertilizer residues, and pet waste. All these pollutants wash down storm drains and from there into the state’s waterways.
Some parts of Massachusetts have sewage systems called combined sewer overflows, which carry sewage and rainwater together. A heavy rain can overload these systems, causing the sewage-laden water to overflow into waterways. Sewage contains human waste that can spread diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis, and salmonella. It may also contain industrial waste, toxic chemicals, and river-clogging debris. And releases of sewage can warm waterways, causing thermal pollution.
Technology evolves all the time, and pollution evolves with it. There are many chemicals in the water today that haven’t traditionally been covered by environmental laws. Consequently, many water treatment plants aren’t designed to remove them. They remain in waterways and make their way into fish and other animals that eat them. These chemicals are called emerging contaminants.
One troubling type of emerging contaminant is polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in nature. They’re found in certain pesticides, household cleaners, and nonstick cookware. Other emerging contaminants include medicines, personal care products, and lawn care chemicals.
Typically, the largest cities suffer from the highest pollution levels. But in Massachusetts, the picture is a bit more complicated. Ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association, is worst in Bristol County—part of the Providence, Rhode Island, metropolitan area. And the Boston College report says particle pollution is worst in Suffolk County, home to Boston, the state’s largest city. But the second-largest city, Worcester, has the lowest particulate levels.
When it comes to toxic releases reported on the TRI, though, Worcester is much worse off. It’s tied with Middlesex County, home of Cambridge, for the most toxic releases: 67 in 2021. Bristol County is close behind with 54. By contrast, the lightly populated island counties of Dukes and Nantucket had only one toxic release between them.
Pollution sickens and even kills thousands of Bay State residents yearly. Air pollution causes lung ailments, including lung cancer, as well as heart disease and stroke. Pollutants in water can also cause cancer and other illnesses, as well as spreading infectious diseases.
Pollution also harms Massachusetts residents in less direct ways. Air pollution causes acid rain, which damages crops and buildings. Water pollution makes fish unsafe to eat, while soil pollution can make crops unsafe. And most seriously of all, greenhouse gas pollution causes climate change. More severe heat waves pose a particular threat in urban heat islands, while worsening storms threaten coastal areas. And since many Massachusetts cities are on the coast, they’re doubly at risk.
The dangers of pollution aren’t evenly distributed across Massachusetts. They typically pose a greater threat to the state’s low-income and minority residents. For instance, the Boston College report found that particle pollution has the greatest impact on disadvantaged communities. This includes low-income communities, communities of color, and neighborhoods in inner cities or along highways.
Worse, a 2018 report from Boston University found that this inequality is growing. While air pollution has generally improved in Massachusetts, it remains worse in areas where most people are Black or Hispanic. Focusing cleanup efforts on these areas is an example of environmental justice (EJ), the principle that environmental laws should benefit everyone.
Federal and state government agencies, as well as nonprofits, are working to clean up pollution in Massachusetts. Their efforts include:
There are many things individuals can do to help keep the Bay State Clean. To prevent water pollution, start with your car. Check it regularly for oil leaks, and don’t wash it in your driveway—that sends dirty and oily water into storm drains. If you have a lawn, use fertilizer sparingly, and avoid using it when there’s a rainstorm in the forecast. Always clean up after your pets to keep their waste out of waterways. And never dump household chemicals down the drain—take them to a hazardous waste disposal site.
To fight air pollution, the most important thing you can do is reduce your fossil fuel use. Save energy at home by adjusting your thermostat settings and making upgrades to lighting and insulation. On the road, try to drive less and make more trips by foot, bike, or mass transit. If you’re looking for a new car, consider an electric one, which can save you money while helping the climate.
Speaking of saving money, another easy way to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels is to sign up for community solar. This lets you benefit from clean solar energy at a cheaper rate without installing panels on your roof. Perch can help you find a community solar project in your area.