Quality of Maryland's Air Has Improved Dramatically in Recent Years - Southern Maryland Headline News

Quality of Maryland's Air Has Improved Dramatically in Recent Years

Commentary by Shari T. Wilson, Secretary, Maryland Department of the Environment

The quality of Maryland’s air has improved dramatically in recent years.

Last year, the state met three federal standards for reducing ozone and fine-particle levels and we are on the cusp of meeting a fourth. Air toxics have been cut nearly in half in the past decade. Carbon monoxide and lead have been virtually eliminated from the air.

Pollution control programs are working. And as we move into the summer “ozone season,” more good news is on the horizon.

To meet the requirements of Maryland’s landmark Healthy Air Act, the largest coal-burning power plants have installed “scrubbers” to remove pollutants. The federal government is working toward tougher standards for power plants in other states and for industrial boilers, cement kilns and motor vehicles. Meanwhile, the State is working to reduce the amount of pollution carried into Maryland from other areas.

The message is clear: we must build on our successes and carry on our fight for cleaner air.

When talking about efforts to reduce air pollution, a quick lesson in geography, meteorology, and chemistry can be helpful.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released into the air when we drive and use such products as fuels, paints, household cleaners, and personal hygiene products. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) is emitted when fossil fuels are burned. These compounds form ground-level ozone when cooked by the sun. Breathing ozone can cause respiratory problems. NOx deposits contribute to nutrient pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Sulfur dioxide is produced by the burning of fossil fuels containing sulfur compounds. It is the most significant contributor to the problem of fine particles, which creates haze that decreases visibility and is linked to premature death and heart and lung problems.

Maryland’s weather and geography are also factors. Power plant pollution from the Ohio River Valley rides the wind into Maryland, while Chesapeake Bay breezes act as a wall of cool air that concentrates pollution along the Interstate-95 corridor. On certain days, southerly winds carry pollution that is funneled into Maryland by the Appalachian Mountains to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

At certain times, as much as 70 percent of the pollution in our air comes from other states. To address this, Maryland is part of the multi-state Ozone Transport Commission, which works to implement regional requirements.

Closer to home, the Healthy Air Act—the most sweeping air pollution program ever in Maryland and the toughest power plant emission law on the East Coast—requires reductions in emissions of NOx, sulfur dioxide and mercury. The Maryland Clean Cars Program includes standards for model year 2011-and-later vehicles that significantly reduce VOC and NOx emissions (along with greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change).

In the 1970s and 1980s you could routinely see and smell air pollution in Maryland, but the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 set the stage for change. After steady but slow improvement early on, air quality has dramatically improved over the past six years.

Maryland will continue to press for tougher national and regional standards. With the advent of summer—when air pollution levels typically peak—you too can help.

Go to MDE’s website for three-day air quality forecasts, sign up for email alerts at www.cleanairpartners.net, or call the air quality hotline at 410-537-3247. When air quality is unhealthy, please take steps to reduce pollution at home and at work. For example, avoid cutting the grass or painting. Emissions from vehicles and power plants remain our two most pressing challenges. So avoid unnecessary trips in your car and keep it properly maintained. Cut back on your energy use. You’ll save money—and help make our air healthier.

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