This article is part of Climate Justice Organizing for Belonging, a series co-produced with NPQ and Mothers Out Front. The key question guiding this organizational shift—and this series—is: what does successful organizing look like for the most impacted when resources fully support them?
Through collaborative action, Mothers Out Front East Boston is fighting for the right to breathe clean air and live and work in a community that is safe and healthy. We are demanding equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. In particular, we are fighting to reduce vehicle idling at Boston Logan International Airport, which emits more than 35,000 pounds of pollution daily and 810,000 metric tons of greenhouse gasses per year.
East Boston is a historically working-class, immigrant neighborhood. Fifty percent of its residents were born outside of the US and identify as Latino/a; about half of all families in the neighborhood live below the official poverty line. It is estimated that more than 35 percent of the total East Boston population is undocumented—and this is presumed to be an undercount.
Class, race, and ethnicity are key determinants of exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards, with working-class people and BIPOC folks disproportionately exposed relative to affluent White people. As such, it is no surprise that East Boston sits in a flood zone and is burdened by high levels of air pollution and industrial hazards, the newest being an electrical substation being built near a playground despite years of community opposition.
Prioritizing East Boston’s Air Health
One of the biggest air polluters in East Boston is Logan Airport, where drivers often idle, their fumes poisoning the surrounding area. With the least amount of tree canopy in the city at seven percent, East Boston lacks the plant life needed to help filter harmful pollutants from the air and reduce exposure to air pollution.
Unsurprisingly, East Boston also has higher rates of children with asthma and adults with pulmonary disease than other parts of Boston. Air pollution exposure during pregnancy can cause premature birth, low birth weight, and developmental issues. And air pollution exposure in children can cause asthma, obesity, cancer, cognitive delay, and other challenges. In East Boston, where 21 percent of residents are children, families are understandably concerned.
Most drivers aren’t aware that idling for more than five minutes is illegal in Massachusetts, nor do they appear fully aware of the consequences of idling.
When I was pregnant with my second child, I spent every day worrying about the possible health impacts of air pollution on my baby. I picked the park I would take my toddler to based on which direction the wind was blowing and the time of day, all in an effort to reduce our exposure. This hyperawareness eventually took a toll, and I’ve thought about leaving. But I love the East Boston community. Living in an area with high pollution takes a mental, emotional, and physical toll on residents. But East Boston is our home. We can’t and don’t want to leave.
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That is why Mothers Out Front is fighting to reduce idling at Logan Airport. Most drivers aren’t aware that idling for more than five minutes is illegal in Massachusetts, nor do they appear fully aware of the consequences of idling. As such, in October 2022, we organized a demonstration at Logan Airport. We stood at the curbsides of Terminal B and spoke to idling drivers about the impacts of prolonged exhaust exposure and asked them to turn off their engines. About 40 demonstrators participated, including neighbors, members of our clean air coalition, and allies from Mothers Out Front, Mutual Aid Eastie, Eastie Farm, GreenRoots, Extinction Rebellion, Airport Impact Relief, and the Harborkeepers. We had an 85 percent compliance rate with our request. Most motorists were happy to help and thanked us for our work before turning off their vehicles. We also fueled a tweetstorm to further share our demands and raise awareness, prompting elected officials to pay attention to and amplify our concerns. As a result of our advocacy, Logan Airport put up “No Idling” signs, an enormous win.
However, we need more from Massport, the public authority that operates Logan Airport. We need more signs in better locations and multiple languages, along with non-police enforcement. And we need more transparency and engagement from Massport. Though our neighbor, Massport is inaccessible to our community. That needs to change. We had our first in-person meeting with Massport about idling in February, where we asked for more regular collaboration and for forums to be inclusive and open to the community.
We also need our government agencies to protect us. We need more support from the Federal Aviation Administration, which issues and enforces aviation regulations but does not yet monitor ultrafine particles, which are small enough to pass through the lung tissue into the bloodstream and are linked to numerous negative health effects.
While we continue pushing for mitigation from Massport and government agencies, we can’t afford to wait. So, Mothers Out Front has installed HEPA air purifiers in home daycares in East Boston—most of which are run by women of color and care for the young of our most vulnerable populations. In collaboration with environmental scientists at Air Partners/Olin College, who have been studying and monitoring air pollution in our community for the past eight years, Mothers Out Front has also installed sensors so we can monitor the impact of the HEPA purifiers.
As there’s no centralized way to distribute purifiers to home daycares, we must first build trust with the institutions, understand providers’ needs, and have conversations about why we need air purifiers. So far, we’ve been able to install HEPA purifiers in 35 home daycares.
This work has highlighted the importance of educating East Boston residents about air pollution in order to better mobilize the community. So, another main goal for Mothers Out Front is to make data about East Boston’s air quality and health impacts accessible and have public dialogue on the issue so we can push for change more effectively beyond installing air purifiers and sensors ourselves.
Every day, planes will come and go from Logan Airport, and every day, Mothers Out Front will continue to fight for clean air and for our right to live in the conditions that foster our health, safety, and wellbeing.