Something in the Air
Ten Reasons To Hold Your Breath This Summer
The Baltimore area is particularly susceptible to air problems in the summertime—especially when it comes to ozone, that invisible, scentless gas that is a by-product of industrial pollution and the main ingredient in urban smog. Ozone is a form of molecular oxygen, and when found high in the atmosphere, it shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. But when found in high concentrations near ground level, ozone can cause headaches, chest pain, nausea, and a whole host of other nasty health problems. It can even have a harmful impact on plant growth, corrode masonry, and cause paint to darken. And Baltimore is especially hospitable to the noxious stuff. In addition to having heavy industry in the region, we have an increasing population, a strong car culture, and a warm, still climate.
“We have perfect conditions for the formation of ozone,” says Russ Ulrich, air-quality outreach coordinator for Clean Air Partners, a public-private partnership between the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council designed to educate the public on reducing air pollutants, especially ozone. “We get those hot, hazy days during the summer when the air barely moves and the emissions cook under the sun and create ozone.”
Ulrich says ozone isn’t Baltimore’s only air-quality problem. We’ve also got particle pollution to contend with. These teeny bits of liquid and solid matter (often fine bits of metal, chemicals, dust, or organic matter) can be breathed into the lungs, where if they’re small enough they can lodge permanently. Cars, trucks, buses, factories, incinerators, aerosols—pretty much anything that emits fumes, chemicals, or exhaust—contributes to particle pollution.
“These little tiny particles and liquid droplets are actually capable of getting into the bloodstream,” Ulrich says. “They are really, really tiny, and there are some studies that indicate that heart disease might be linked to particle pollution.”
With that in mind, here are some fun facts about air pollution for you to ponder next time you venture outside to get your sno-ball, go to an O’s game, or sit on your front stoop. If it’s an Air Quality Action Day, do yourself a favor and try not to breathe.
We live in a city that ranks at the top of the charts not only in heroin use, syphilis infection, and murder, but also in air pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2005 report, the Baltimore-Washington corridor ranked as the 12th most polluted locality in the nation when it comes to short-term particle pollution in the air.
Air pollution isn’t just an urban problem: According to the American Lung Association, Harford County and Anne Arundel County were in the top 25 most ozone-polluted counties in the nation, ranking 17th and 19th, respectively.
Your perfectly manicured lawn could be causing the neighborhood children’s asthma attacks. In the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment is the second-biggest contributor to ozone smog, ranking just behind cars and trucks, which contribute the most to ozone pollution. “There have been some studies done, and typically, running a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour produces the same amount of emissions as an auto traveling from Baltimore to Hartford, Connecticut,” Ulrich says. “If people have to mow their grass, we really encourage them to use [manual push] mowers or electric mowers. Apparently there are some really good electric mowers on the market right now.”
Cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles, Clean Air Partners says, are responsible for about 30 percent of emissions that create air pollution in the Baltimore area. “A lot of this comes from people driving themselves to work,” Ulrich says. Despite this, Gov. Robert Ehrlich keeps pushing to build the Intercounty Connector highway rather than invest in improvements in public transportation.
The Maryland Department of the Environment notes that scientific studies it has conducted show that not all the ozone in our area is due to sources from within this state—in fact, large clouds of ozone float from one state to the next, and more than half of Maryland’s ozone contamination on any given day is coming from out-of-state power plants in the Ohio River Valley and other distant sources. On some days, MDE notes, the percentage of local contamination from upwind states has been recorded as 70 percent.
It’s enough to give you chest pains just thinking about it: Ozone, which is an irritant, directly impacts lung function. Clean Air Partners estimates that an average adult breathes roughly 3,500 gallons of air per day, but when ozone exists at high concentrations near ground level, lung function can be reduced by up to 20 percent. That would reduce the average adult’s air intake to just 2,800 gallons per day.
The American Lung Association ranks Baltimore-Washington No. 11 on its list of metro regions with the worst ozone pollution. That’s higher than Pittsburgh (No. 17), Detroit (No. 20), and Chicago (No. 23).
Some states, including California and Maine, have passed “clean car” legislation, bills that require a certain percentage of auto sales to be made up of the most efficient, least polluting cars on the market. The bill has been proposed several times in Maryland, but it has always been defeated in the General Assembly. In fact, a version of the bill was killed during the 2005 session. This year the General Assembly also killed a so-called “four Ps” bill that would have imposed tougher standards for power plants that emit any of four major pollutants: mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur, or nitrogen oxide.
Three Maryland power plants—Chalk Point in Prince George’s County, Dickerson in Montgomery County, and Herbert A. Wagner in Anne Arundel County—were listed earlier this month as among the top 50 dirtiest power plants in the nation by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit organization pushing for stronger enforcement of federal and state air-quality laws. According to that organization, the 50 dirtiest plants generate only 14 percent of the nation’s electricity but contribute up to 50 percent of sulfur dioxide, 42 percent of mercury, 40 percent of nitrogen oxide, and 35 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite the fact that those plants were listed as among the dirtiest in the nation, a 2002 report by researchers from Johns Hopkins University indicated that, when it comes to the kinds of air pollution the average Baltimorean encounters every day, common household items might be as hazardous as vehicle or industrial emissions (“Air Waves,” Jan. 23, 2002). Researchers determined that some of the cancer-causing airborne chemicals people in Baltimore are exposed to—chloroform, benzene, and p-dichlorobenzene—are released by what most would consider less-than-insidious sources. Chloroform, for example, is released from chlorinated tap water, benzene is found in gasoline, and p-dichlorobenzene is found in toilet deodorizers. Likewise, aerosol cans of deodorant and hair spray give off substances that contribute to urban smog—good thing the Baltimore Hon beehive has gone out of style.
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