Polluted air hits asthmatics hard; Area's ozone levels, among worst in U.S., may grow if roads do


Before moving from Columbus, Ohio, to Baltimore in the summer of 1986, Jan Lucas had never been hospitalized for her asthma. But within three weeks, she learned the difference between living in a town with clean air and one with chronic ozone pollution.

Wheezing and unable to breathe, she was rushed to Greater Baltimore Medical Center and hospitalized for nearly a week. It was the first in a series of emergency visits so numerous that she has lost count, she says.

"I only found out after I moved here that the air pollution in this area is about as bad as it gets east of the Mississippi," says Lucas, 49, assistant director of university relations at Towson University.

She and others with respiratory ailments fear the problem could get worse.

Last month, the regional Transportation Steering Committee -- a little-known but powerful group that approves road projects -- decided to ignore evidence that vehicle emissions and air pollution in the Greater Baltimore area exceed federal limits and to press forward with several major new road projects.

In doing so, the committee voted to use outdated, 1990 traffic data -- instead of more accurate 1996 data -- so Baltimore could stay within federal emissions limits on paper and qualify for the new road projects.

The more current analysis of Greater Baltimore's air quality based on 1996 data shows an in crease in vehicles and pollution that has pushed the region out of compliance with federal standards.

If federal officials allow the committee to forge ahead with new road projects based on the old data -- a decision that could be made within days -- pollution could temporarily get worse.

And that would be no small problem for those, like Lucas, afflicted with respiratory ailments.

Simply moving to Baltimore and breathing the more polluted air forced a drastic change in her daily activities -- particularly on "Code Red" days, when ozone levels are at the highest and most dangerous.

Baltimore has long been recognized as having one of the worst ozone pollution problems in the country. Vehicles traveling through the region produce 15 tons of emissions each day in excess of what is permitted by federal regulators.

A 1996 study by the American Lung Association ranked Baltimore second only to Los Angeles in hospital admissions and emergency visits due to respiratory-related illness. A report last year ranked Maryland seventh for unhealthy smog days among 26 states and Washington, D.C.

Ozone is a chemical concoction formed by pollution from various sources, including cars, smokestacks and lawn mowers. Even individuals without respiratory problems can suffer coughing and throat and eye irritation from breathing it.

"Over a period of a few days exposure, I can get very, very sick," Lucas says.

She has bought a nebulizer -- a machine the size of a toaster that converts liquid medicine into a fine spray to be inhaled. She purchased a portable version for her car that plugs into the cigarette lighter to give her relief during her breaks from work.

On Code Red days, she doesn't leave her office in Towson or go on walks in her Loch Raven neighborhood. Her windows at home are kept tightly closed. She runs air conditioning nonstop, even on some cool days. And even with medical insurance, she says, her out-of-pocket expenses have totaled as much as $2,000 a year.

"It's hard for somebody who has been through what I've been through to justify any delay in correcting these problems," she says. "It's not something that can wait a few years or be implemented in a gradual, incremental kind of way.

"People with young children must be horrified that these poor kids spend night after night wheezing and coughing and being terrified."

Bryant Himmage, 11, who lives near the Baltimore Beltway in Glen Burnie, is one of those children. He has suffered from asthma all his life and spent much of his summer vacation indoors playing games and reading books, trying to avoid the polluted air. "He gets upset because he wants to be outside with other kids, riding his bike and doing the things kids normally do," says his mother, Deborah.

Before driving Bryant anywhere, his parents start the car and get the air conditioning running. At home, the air conditioning is always on.

The idea of more new roads, particularly for the new Arundel Mills megamall nearby in Anne Arundel County, which will bring thousands more cars a day, concerns his mother.

"When ozone levels are really bad, he has spent up to two weeks inside. I don't think they're showing much concern for people who have these kinds of problems," she says.

Simply stepping outside in late summer can trigger a dangerous attack. "I start wheezing over and over -- I can barely breathe," says Bryant, a seventh-grade honor student at Lindale Brooklyn Park Middle School in Anne Arundel County. "Right away it feels like someone is smothering me."

Asthma attacks strike Bryant a couple of times a week. But when ozone levels rise, he can experience them every three or four hours, his mother says.

"If he's playing in the basement, he can't make it up the stairs," she added. "He pounds on his chest, he can't breathe, he can't talk, he's terrified he's going to die."

For people like Bryant, the consequences of additional roads and ozone are unclear.

If local planners can find methods of curtailing pollution, such as tighter emissions limits on utilities, there might be no problem with their decision to move forward with building roads.

But if federal agencies block use of the old data, that could mean revising road construction plans for the region -- although it's unlikely that such major projects as roads for the Arundel Mills mall would be postponed.

The Federal Highway Administration, which has the power to overrule the regional committee, is debating what to do, but is expected to make a decision within days. One option is to put greater priority on more environmentally sound projects -- such as public transit -- says Nelson Castellano, director of the highway administration's regional office in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 9/29/99

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