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Heat wave bringing more smog to MD - get used to it?

Another heat wave is oppressing Maryland, and air-quality experts are warning today (6/8) could be another "Code Orange" day for all but the western end of the state. Children and adults with breathing or heart conditions should limit their time outdoors because of rising levels of smog, or ozone pollution.

Ozone forms in the air when emissions from vehicles, power plants and other sources "bake" under hot, sunny skies. It can irritate the lungs, triggering coughing and wheezing, and aggravate asthma and other respiratory and heart problems.

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Last summer was the hottest on record in these parts, and Clean Air Watch, a blog by Washington-based clean-air lobbyist Frank O'Donnell, points out that there've been fewer days of unhealthy smog levels so far this year nationwide, with national health standards for ozone breached 445 times through May 31, compared with 575 such "exceedances" by the same time last year.

But according to federal data, Maryland and 21 other states, plus the District of Columbia, have already experienced more bad air days in 2011 to date than in the same period the year before, he notes.

While Maryland and other states have made progress in recent years in reducing smog levels, climate experts have warned that global warming is likely to undercut those gains as unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other so-called greenhouse gases raise the earth's average temperature. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that climate change-induced ozone increases in Maryland could result in about 69,000 additional cases of serious respiratory illnesses, with the health-related impacts of worsening air pollution costing the state more than $133 million in 2020 alone.

Meanwhile, a political tug-of-war continues in Washington over whether to tighten limits on ozone-forming emissions.  Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed to lower the acceptable level of ozone in the air, pointing to research indicating some health effects at concentrations below the current standard, which was set during the Bush administration.  The agency has yet to finalize that proposal, as industry groups have objected, complaining that the costs of reducing pollution levels are unwarranted and a drag on the economy.

(Hazy summer skyline from Federal Hill; 2002 Baltimore Sun photo by Nanine Hartzenbush)

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