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Polluted air respects no man-made borders


IS ANYONE breathing easier these days?

We should be, here in bucolic Carroll County, where the country air is fresh and untainted by the dystopian clouds of metropolis or by the foul fumes of the interstates.

Alas, the air we breathe is not always of our own making. It comes from afar, borne by the winds of fate, its toxic chemistry subject to the whims of nature's sunlight as well as pollutants that man spews into the atmosphere.

Carroll topped the charts in June with the highest ozone reading yet in Maryland this summer.

Last week, the county declared Ozone Action Days in an effort to reduce the pollutants from motor fuel, the prime source of ozone or smog. (Though the county did not, as many a delayed motorist can testify, actually take the prescribed action of calling off the road paving crews and the highway mowers.)

Carroll avoided the dubious distinction of the highest unhealthy air quality levels last week; that honor went to Harford County, another low-density jurisdiction on the metro fringe.

Harford also doesn't have much smokestack industry, but it does have the mixed blessing of Interstate 95 traffic. Cecil County, another non-urban area within the I-95 corridor, also records some of the highest readings of bad air in Maryland. Its problems lie in the greater Philadelphia airshed, while neighboring Harford (like Carroll) is part of the Baltimore area.

No county, then, is an island. Controlling smog demands a concerted regional effort, even a multi-regional effort. It's a complicated phenomenon, where the most obvious answers are often the wrong ones.

A few years ago, Carroll officials strongly objected to being included in the state auto emission inspection program. We don't have pollution problems here, they said, so why place this unnecessary burden on our residents?

True, the high ozone levels in Carroll don't reflect purely local causes of the problem. But the local vehicles add to the local smog burden, helping to push it into the unhealthy range in summer.

And what about the 60 percent of the working people in Carroll who travel to other counties (or states) for their jobs? Their pollution contribution is no less offensive simply because they work elsewhere.

On a broader scale, Maryland's episodes of bad air sometimes originate with pollution in the Ohio Valley.

There's another common misconception that big industry is responsible for most of the hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that drift into the air (combining with sunshine to create ground-level smog). According to the Department of the

Environment, lawn mowers and powered boats emit more air pollutants than do all the large industrial plants in the state.

Trash fires are also a problem for air quality. Each summer,

Carroll is one of a dozen counties placed under an open-burning ban, not because of fire hazards but because of the resulting nitrogen oxide that produces smog.

Measures to reduce smog have resulted in significant improvements in recent years. But it is also up to weather conditions that can vary from summer to summer.

Up to this weekend, Maryland had exceeded federal ozone standards only three days. This compares with 14 days of definitely unhealthy air last year, and 10 bad air days the year before. In the 1980s, the yearly average was about 20 unhealthy smog days.

But Maryland remains under a pall of smog. It is the only air pollutant for which the state is out of compliance with federal standards; the goals under the 1990 Clean Air Act measure performance over several years, so one fortunate turn of nature does not mask the underlying problem.

Despite improvements, however, there is increasing concern that the legal levels defining unhealthy air need to be tightened. The Environmental Protection Agency is working on revisions that may be announced this fall.

Smog can make people sick, causing wheezing and shortness of breath and headaches. Children and those with respiratory problems such as asthma are most at risk: some 600,000 Marylanders with breathing difficulties are vulnerable. In a recent study for the American Lung Association, researchers calculated that up to 600 hospital admissions and 2,000 emergency room visits in metro Baltimore were caused by smog in the summer of 1994.

Second to L.A.

Next to the Los Angeles region, Baltimore ranked worst in the percentage of hospital cases related to ground-level ozone. The study showed that ozone levels are still far from healthy levels, even if there are fewer days of hitting the truly unhealthy limits.

Individuals can reduce their exposure by staying indoors and avoiding strenuous activity on bad ozone days, which are noted in daily weather reports. They can also help the overall problem by postponing lawn mowing and painting on bad air days, using car pools, refueling autos after dusk and keeping engines well-tuned and inspected according to state schedule.

Although none of us alone may be the principal cause, we are all a part of the problem.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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