Baltimore area among 45 nationwide EPA says have unhealthy smog

Baltimore area among 45 nationwide EPA says have unhealthy smog (2002 file photo / May 2, 2012)

Just in time for the start of ozone season, the Environmental Protection Agency officially reminds us that Baltimoreans are still breathing unhealthful levels of pollution in their air in late spring and summer.

The city and its suburbs were among 45 metro areas nationwide that EPA listed on Tuesday as being in "nonattainment" with air quality standards set in 2008 for ground-level ozone, or smog. Ozone is the byproduct of chemicals emitted in vehicle exhaust and from a wide variety of other sources, including power plants and factories.

Baltimoreans have long suffered through summer smog - back in the '90s, our air was second only to southern California's and New York City's for its lung-burning capacity. 

The air quality has improved almost everywhere since then, which officials attribute to curbs placed on power plants and factories and cleaner cars and fuels.  The Baltimore area was one of 113 deemed in "moderate" violation of the limit set in 1997 of 84 parts ozone per billion parts of air.  The number of areas EPA found out of compliance has fallen by more than half.

The EPA decided in 2008 to lower the ozone standard - though not as much as some health experts had recommended - because of new research showing even lower levels can produce harmful health effects.  Inhaling ozone can aggravate asthma and other breathing problems, and may contribute to some premature deaths, particularly of people with heart and lung disease.

Though fewer metro areas are out of whack with the new, lower ozone limit of 75 parts per billion, Baltimore is still classified as in "moderate" nonattainment.  That includes the city but especially its suburbs - Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties - where ozone levels are often higher than downtown.

As a result, Maryland officials have to produce a plan showing how they expect to reduce ozone pollution enough to meet EPA's standards.  Much of that reduction may come about as a result of federal rather than state actions, such as new EPA rules requiring pollution reductions at power plants, in vehicles and fuels,

But EPA has come under fire in Congress, where efforts have been made to block or roll back environmental rules critics contend hurt the economy.  Frank O'Donnell of the Washington-based environmental lobby Clean Air Watch said the EPA's listing showing 45 areas still breathing unhealthy air ought to prompt lawmakers to let the agency go ahead with  requiring cleaner-burning, low-sulfur gasoline.