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The Collateral Damage of the US’s Airport “Sacrifice Zones“

Communities near airports are often plagued by health issues.

(Photo: Madrazz)

We met at a coffee shop doubling as a lottery ticket dispenser. The man I was meeting was Chris Marchi, who has called East Boston his home for more than five decades. Now he and his friends have become vanguards of public health by raising questions about the multibillion-dollar airport that borders their neighborhood.

Marchi is six-feet tall and is built like a former high school varsity athlete. But now his muscles are just beginning to turn soft around the neck and stomach. Wrinkles around his eyes and forehead are present from long days in the sun and past years of smoking. He’s long since quit. He wears Adidas sneakers, jeans, a North Face windbreaker and a well-worn green Celtics winter cap that covers dark hair turning to speckled grey on the sides and retreating across his scalp. You can hear the stamp of his blue-collar neighborhood known for its beach, immigrant community and airport when he says his “r’s” and “e’s.”

When it comes to the airport, he was born in the thick of a fight that has spanned generations of East Bostonians.

When Marchi was a boy, the civil rights movement was shaking the United States to its core and environmentalism was just beginning. One of the issues that Marchi’s mother was passionate about was the expansion of Logan International Airport. “I was quite literally the poster child for this issue in Eastie,” Marchi said.

This is not hyperbole.

During this time, there was a poster in East Boston that showed a little boy on a swing with an airplane flying overhead. This poster was used to demonstrate the dangerous externalities the airport caused to the residents in East Boston, and the child who was pictured on the poster was Chris Marchi.

Growing up in East Boston, Marchi bounced around schools and ended up in Boston Latin School. He barely survived Boston Latin, and knew he couldn’t go to college. He had started volunteering in gyms and pools when he was 11 and had gotten a paid job when he was 15 working at the pool.

He volunteered here and there and worked a little at the State House, but he came back to the issue with the airport when his sister said that they should work on it together.

Marchi’s sister ended up in San Francisco to get her master’s degree. He stayed in East Boston and took on the project without his sibling. Now, he has been wrestling with it on and off for more than a decade.

What Marchi and other community organizers want is to deal with the issues of traffic congestion, pollution, noise and most important of all: health. These are Marchi’s complaints, but they are coming at a time when instead of listening to community concerns, Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) is planning to add 15,000 nighttime flights a year while also expanding the international terminal.

This is beginning to look like what is called a “sacrifice zone.”

A sacrifice zone is a geographic area — most commonly found in low-income and minority communities — that has been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment.

It’s sacrificed, in theory, for the “greater good.” For example, building an airport for the economic good of Boston. I asked Marchi if he feels that East Boston is one of these sacrifice zones. He thought for a few moments and then said, “Well I think that is the way the thing has shaken out. And it feels that way today.”

Children who live in neighborhoods bordering the airport are four times more likely to experience shortness of breath and show signs of asthma and lung disease.

Marchi sees the history of East Boston as always being a way to come and go from Boston, and so the airport is a natural progression of that history. “The airport bills itself as the engine of the economy,” Marchi said, and so “we are the sacrificial lamb — why we are the collateral damage. But the real reason is because the neighborhood doesn’t have political capitol. Nobody gets ahead by fighting Logan Airport.”

Call it bad luck. Call it a public health crisis cluster. Marchi has another word for it. “No one is ever diagnosed with airportitis,” Marchi said with a wry glint in his eye.

A five-mile radius from Logan International Airport contains the communities of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Hull, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Melrose, Milton, Nahant, Quincy, Revere, Saugus, Somerville and Winthrop. Winthrop has residential properties located within 800 feet of the airport, and East Boston immediately borders the airport with some residential properties directly abutting airport property.

In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health published a study on health issues of the residents living near the airport. The study found that children who live in neighborhoods bordering the airport are as much as four times more likely to experience shortness of breath and show signs of asthma and lung disease, compared with children who live farther away. All this did was to confirm Marchi’s suspicions. But he didn’t think it went far enough. The results were based on data from 2005, and Marchi watched as the study got defunded four times between 2005 and when it was finally published in 2014.

Marchi recalled that his oldest son, Thomas, was playing on a regional soccer team in Beacon Hill with kids from all over Boston. Marchi remembers that the coach took Thomas out of the game, and that when Marchi went over to check on his son, he saw that his face was bright red and Thomas told him that he couldn’t breathe.

The risk of asthma goes up by 360 percent and the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease goes up 200 percent when someone lives by an airport.

Both of Marchi’s sons have been diagnosed with asthma and his father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease COPD. Marchi often wonders if the increased exposure to fine particulates in the airplane plumes that fall on East Boston are the cause for his father’s and his sons’ health issues. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health study assessed asthma, COPD, heart attack, angina, coronary heart disease, and adult-onset hearing impairment and tinnitus, and focused on the “five primary air pollutants” from airport-related operations. These were carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide, volatile organic compounds and fine-particle pollution — the stuff that causes haze over cities.

The study showed that the risk of asthma goes up by 360 percent when someone lives by an airport. A person’s risk of developing COPD goes up 200 percent.

“We’ll never know until there is a study done on people who have lived in Eastie for 50 years to see what the health effects are from long-term exposure to living in this community. But I’ll tell you this,” Marchi told me, “this is not a healthy community and we know that.”

Asthma caused by dirty air may not be the only problem associated with major airports. There have also been studies that show a link to higher lead levels in children who grow up by major airports as well. Yes, lead. The stuff the United States began to phase out of automotive gasoline beginning in the 1970s. But this stuff still remains in the fuel for small, piston-engine airplanes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these planes use enough leaded aviation fuel — called “avgas” in the industry — to account for half of the lead pollution in US skies.

16 million Americans live close to airports where leaded “avgas” is routinely used; and 3 million children go to schools near these airports.

A 2011 Duke University study found that children who lived within 2,000 feet of an airport, where leaded avgas is used, have higher blood lead levels than children who do not live near airports. According to the study, the elevation of lead in the blood stays in children just over a mile away from airports.

The EPA estimates that 16 million Americans live close to one of 22,000 airports where leaded avgas is routinely used — and 3 million children go to schools near these airports. The EPA has not restricted lead in avgas, however, even though unleaded avgas is available.

Yet, even after nine years of study, there is not one mention of lead in the report. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s director of strategic initiatives, Scott Zoback, confirmed this detail. But he and his organization declined to comment on why lead was not mentioned in the health study.

David Bellinger, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, says more needs to be known about how flight paths and prevailing winds affect lead exposure in children. Scientists are working on follow-up studies looking at these factors. Bellinger said that low levels of lead exposure affect children in very different ways, but the effects can add up if the population is looked at as a whole.

But here’s the thing, we need airports.

A 2016 study on air travel in the United States found that 45 percent of United States’ adult population flew the previous year — the highest percentage since data has been collected. The Social Research and Corporate Reputation specialists in alliance with Airlines for America has said that the number of Americans currently flying has steadily climbed as more Americans have access to air travel. The trend is only expected to climb.

And it’s not only that more people are flying; it’s also big business. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s 2014 Statewide Airport Economic Impact Study shows why exactly. As of 2014, Logan Airport employed 131,991 people, paying a combined $4.3 billion in salaries and benefits. According to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the airport is directly and indirectly responsible for adding $13.3 billion to the economy of Boston.

“For a lot of people, the airport is a very positive thing in the neighborhood because they give $25,000 to the YMCA every year like it’s candy. They give everybody jobs and everybody’s got a second cousin who’s making big money at the airport or a neighbor who is working there helping the planes land, or moving the baggage,” Marchi said.

Besides Marchi and a few other committed individuals, there’s not much will to fight the airport and the fight takes its toll.

Marchi looks tired. He had recently tried to stay out of the airport fight. His family was going through some difficult times and he decided to take some time off. But he couldn’t. It has become a compulsion to work on the issue for Marchi. During the day he gave his full attention to his family, but when night came, and his children and wife were asleep, he stayed up until 5:00 am for four nights, poring over newly released Massport reports. He remembers physically shaking from exhaustion at points, but pushed through to finish reading and draft a comment letter.

On those long nights he could hear the airplanes taking off and landing at the airport. Even after all the years living in East Boston, the sounds from the airplanes haven’t become white noise. “The airport builds a fortress,” he said. “It’s for the economy. How can you fight that?” But Marchi and the small group, AIR Inc., have been fighting.

Gail Miller is tired. The soon to be 69-year-old is the president of AIR Inc. and has been working, in one way or another, on this issue forever. At the moment, Marchi, Miller and others are working on building connections with the communities around Boston in order to create a regional response to the Airport.

“For years, Massport has used the divide-and-conquer tactic over the communities. Everyone was protecting their own turf,” Miller said.

Miller’s goal is to create a critical mass of opposition to the airport to put pressure on politicians. However, this has not been successful.

“What we have experienced in the recent past is that the political delegation has not been helpful at all. Politically, we need support. Our only hope is through organizing these communities to put pressure on Massport,” Miller said.

Frederick Salvucci served as transportation advisor to Boston Mayor Kevin White between 1970 and 1974, and then as secretary of transportation for Massachusetts under Gov. Michael Dukakis between 1975-78, and from 1983 to 1990. From the beginning of his career, he has worked closely with the activists in East Boston against a number of airport expansion projects.

Salvucci got involved in the issue of health impacts associated with the airport 10 years ago when Winthrop, a neighboring town to East Boston, conducted a rudimentary study that focused on asthma. For Salvucci, the problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to prove that health issues are caused by certain pollution and not others.

“If you live near an airport, some of what you’re breathing comes from the tail pipe of the aircraft taking off and taxiing around, some from trucks and cars traveling to Logan Airport. What matters to your lungs is the cumulative impact of all these things. It shouldn’t matter if the airport caused all these problems, but they exist and what the airport is planning to do is to make these problems worse,” Salvucci said.

At the end of 2016, the group finished producing Destination East Boston, a documentary on the history of the airport and East Boston. AIR Inc. hosted screenings and forums with scientists in Somerville, Cambridge, South Boston and East Boston, and is working to create a 10-part “Airport Academy” online series featuring scientists from London, Montreal, Los Angeles and Boston addressing health issues associated with major airports.

Whether his efforts are working or not, Marchi is unsure. But he thinks people in the community support him. In February, he met a local East Boston man who works for Massport. “I actually hugged a Massport employee,” Marchi said with his arms wide as if to say that the chances of this happening were right up there with winning the lottery with one of the tickets walking out of the coffee shop.

Marchi only knew the man by sight, but he came up to Marchi and told him he was thankful for his work against the airport and said it is important to hold Massport accountable.

And this is why Marchi fights. He doesn’t do it for the money and he doesn’t expect everyone to find the energy and time to fight. “It’s a lonely vocation,” Marchi said, “but it does pay well in that you are helping people stand up for their families.”

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