Health & wellness

Lung illnesses more likely near Logan Airport

Study doesn’t find higher rates of heart disease, hearing loss

Winthrop, a town under a flight path to Logan Airport, is one of 17 communities cited in a Health Department report.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Winthrop, a town under a flight path to Logan Airport, is one of 17 communities cited in a Health Department report.

Children who live in neighborhoods bordering Logan International Airport are as much as four times more likely to wheeze, experience shortness of breath, and exhibit other signs of undiagnosed asthma compared with children who live farther away, according to a long-awaited state report released Wednesday night.

The study, commissioned by the Legislature 14 years ago and only now finished, also found that adults who have lived near the airport for three or more years — in parts of East Boston, South Boston, Chelsea, and Winthrop — are nearly twice as likely to experience chronic obstructive pulmonary disease than those living in communities with less exposure to air pollution from planes taking off and landing.

But the $1.8 million study by the state Department of Public Health, which was delayed after going years without funding and after five revisions to its complicated statistical models, found that those living close to the airport had no higher rates of heart disease or hearing loss.


“The chief takeaways are that we do see some respiratory effects associated with living in the areas of highest impact, but Logan itself represents a smaller contribution to the overall urban air pollution picture than expected,” said Suzanne K. Condon, director of the health department’s Bureau of Environmental Health, who oversaw the study.

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The authors said that the findings on asthma and lung disease are “statistically significant” — meaning they are unlikely to be due to chance — and that they took into account the emissions from greater vehicle traffic in the congested areas near the airport and socioeconomic factors such as smoking rates and poverty, which are known to contribute to the rates of respiratory illnesses.

The study, however, did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between airport emissions and health problems nearby.

The study — the first of its kind for an airport, its authors said — relied on interviews from 2005 with more than 6,000 adults, who also provided health information for more than 2,200 children in 17 communities within a 5-mile radius of the airport.

It also relied on advanced air modeling data to estimate exposure to airport-related emissions.


The authors noted that Massport, which operates Logan, has sought to reduce its emissions by using hybrid vehicles and compressed natural gas fuels, among other changes.

It also said Massport has been working with the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center to address health issues among Massport employees.

It called on the agency to improve health screening for local residents to identify and treat those with respiratory issues.

“We thought it was a balanced report,” said Thomas P. Glynn, chief executive of Massport, who endorsed the recommendations. “We want to work with the Department of Public Health and the neighborhood health centers and the physicians and hospitals to try to make sure we have the best asthma management program there is, and the same with COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease].”

Philip Johenning of Milton spoke at a community meeting in Winthrop where the study’s results were released.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Philip Johenning of Milton spoke at a community meeting in Winthrop where the study’s results were released.

Last year, there were 361,000 takeoffs and landings at Logan, about the same as in 2005 but significantly fewer than the 507,000 in 1998. The fewer flights — the result of increased efficiency and more packed planes — combined with more fuel-efficient aircraft has led to reduced emissions, Glynn said.


He said Massport would provide financial aid to neighborhood health centers to improve treatment of respiratory issues by increasing exams, home visits, medical referrals, and education.

Massport officials said that all 50 airport buses are now either hybrids or run on natural gas, and that overall, 24 percent of airport vehicles use alternative fuels.

They said the new Rental Car Center and bus fleet have reduced bus emissions by more than 70 percent and reduced hourly bus trips from 100 to 30.

Massport has also reduced emissions by parked aircraft, which are no longer powered by diesel fuel or jet engines, and has encouraged aircraft to use only one engine while taxiing.

“While Logan contributes a modest amount of emissions into the neighboring urban environment, we want to be part of the solution, not the problem,’’ Glynn said.

Outside a community meeting in Winthrop where the study findings were unveiled Wednesday night, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop, said he has already had some preliminary discussions with Glynn, and the two plan to speak again Thursday. DeLeo said he hopes to work with community health centers and develop ways to keep the residents around the airport safe.

“This is the start,” he said. “We’re going to have to address these issues of asthma and COPD, so this isn’t just tonight, thank you very much, see you later.”

Senator Anthony W. Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, said outside the meeting that his next steps are to analyze the data, then work with Massport and the Department of Public Health to improve public health policies.

“Quite frankly, I think some of us were nervous about what the results would show — maybe they would show more severe effects, so I’m encouraged that they do not,” he said.

Petruccelli said the report provides a strong starting point for future work to curb air pollutants in the area.

“Having a basic understanding of what some of the impacts are associated with Logan Airport was an important question to get answers for that up until this point in time, you didn’t have,” he said. “It was always a hypothesis.”

About 50 people attended the community meeting, which ran nearly two hours at the Winthrop Senior Center.

Audience members raised questions about the report’s methods, sample size, and how publicized the meeting was. Condon said she’d be happy to return to Winthrop for future meetings about topics such as cancer rates and further analysis of the data.

Anne Roach, a DPH spokeswoman, said the study did not include an examination of cancer in the area because the agency already had that data. “If Logan played a primary role in the development of cancer, we would have expected to see higher lung cancer rates in the high exposure area, and that was not the case,’’ she said.

In a statement, Representative Carlo Basile, an East Boston Democrat, called for surprise emissions inspections on vehicles in and around the airport.

Though he said he was hoping for more substantive results after 14 years, Richard Bangs, 83 and an appointed member of the Winthrop Air Pollution, Noise, and Airport Hazards committee, said it is too early to judge the report.

“First you get the data then you look at it, then you ask the questions and go from there,” Bangs said at the meeting.

Officials at the Department of Public Health said they are working with municipalities to conduct indoor air quality assessments in schools and public buildings to further evaluate the airport’s potential impact.

The study was prompted by complaints from residents about pollution and health concerns.

It also came after local residents spent years trying to block Massport from building runway 14/32, which was delayed by court battles for more than 30 years.

The runway, designed to alleviate delays, was ultimately built and opened in 2006.

The 17 communities within the study area were Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Hull, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Nahant, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, Somerville, and Winthrop.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel. Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @ZackSampson.