‘We still can’t breathe’: Advocates call for relief from air pollution

For decades, Roxbury native Mela Bush-Miles has advocated for clean air and adequate public transportation in a city where the two are inextricably linked. Her campaign is a personal one, she said, as she fights to protect the now fifth-generation of her family affected by air pollution.

Bush-Miles says she raised three children who struggled with respiratory illnesses in childhood.And in December, she says she noticed that her 1-year-old great-granddaughter was struggling to breathe, correctly identifying an asthma attack before making sure the the child was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Her family’s experiences with asthma and other respiratory issues are not unusualin a state where nearly 1 in 10 residents has asthma and more than half are classified as having not well controlled or very poorly controlled asthma, according to state data. The effects of environmental pollution are disproportionately felt by lower-income and minority families who are more likely to be exposed to unhealthy housing conditions and transit pollution that can trigger and exacerbate respiratory issues, according to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Earlier this week, on World Asthma Day, Bush-Miles joined advocates, health experts, and community members in front of Roxbury’s Dudley Cafe to call for measures that would help alleviate the pollution that has contributed to the epidemic. For an hour Tuesday morning, members of the Green Justice Coalition, a partnership of environmental and economic justice organizers, urged state legislators to support three bills that would improve air quality and transportation services in Boston neighborhoods that are hard hit by transit pollution.

The only noise louder than the speeches and occasional chants of “when we fight, we win” were the frequent sounds of air brakes coming from the MBTA buses stopping at the station behind them. Donning #WeStillCan’tBreathe masks, speakers talked in turn about the health impacts caused by emissions from the Fairmount Commuter Rail Linebuses, and other traffic through residential areas in Dorchester, Mattapan, Chinatown, and other city neighborhoods.

Felicia Richard grew up not far from Bush-Miles in Dorchester, along the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line. An organizer at the Fairmount Indigo CDC Collaborative, which advocates for the communities who live along the train route, called on state legislators to support a bill that would electrify the Fairmount rail line by 2024, which would start to reduce the transit pollution burden on communities along the route. The initiative would also serve as a pilot to electrify all commuter rail trains.

When it comes to transit pollution, “we often think of cars, buses, and motorcycles, but trains also give off pollutants and chemicals that can lead to asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory issues,” said Dr. Lacee Satcher, assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at Boston College.

“I’ve lived on that line all my life,” Richard said. “People’s backyards border both sides of these [tracks] and these trains go through spewing emissions while children play in the yards.”

A fifth of Boston’s residents live within a half-mile of the route that runs from South Station to Readville, 83 percent of whom are Black or Latino, according to a 2020 study by Transit Matters, a local transportation advocacy group.And city data has found that the section between the Blue Hill Avenue Station and the Uphams Corner Station has the highest levels of asthma in the city.

The bill, which is scheduled for a hearing next week, would also require uniform fares at all stations and free transfers to connect bus lines to Red and Silver Lines at South Station to ensure more transportation equity for nearby communities.

State Senator Patricia Jehlen spoke at the rally to raise support for another billthat would improve air quality for residents who bear the brunt of pollution from transit, gas stoves, mold, and other pollutants. The legislation would create an advisory committee to identify “air pollution hotspots,” require air monitors in at least eight of these hotspots, and require air filtration systems in existing residential buildings, K-12 schools, and correctional facilities within 200 meters of a marine terminal, an airport, certain roads, or train stations.

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