Nearly half of the people in the United States live in counties with unhealthy air. Sources from gas-fueled lawn and garden equipment, vehicles, and large industrial buildings like power plants and factories emit pollutants. This results in two forms of pollution — particle pollution and ground-level ozone. Once inhaled, these pollutants can reach the lungs and can even be absorbed into the bloodstream where they can affect the heart. It's an issue that begs for action.

In the greater metropolitan Baltimore-Washington region, more than 7.5 million people live in areas affected by the unhealthy air that ground-level ozone and particle pollution create. While this affects all of us and the quality of our environment, its worst impacts are on those who are most sensitive to air pollution, including individuals with heart and/or respiratory disease (asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or cardiovascular disease), children, older adults (65 plus), and those who are active outdoors.

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Our region has made major progress over the last decade. When we look back over the past 10 years, the number of Code Orange and Red days has declined even though the region is under a stricter standard for ground-level ozone, which went into effect in 2008. Code Orange air quality days are especially important to our region's sensitive groups; Code Red days are unhealthy for everyone.

In 2013, the Baltimore region had 27 days over 90 degrees, a prime weather condition for unhealthy air because high heat and sunlight cook pollutants in the atmosphere to create smog. Yet there were only four unhealthy air quality days (four Code Orange and zero Code Red) in the metropolitan Baltimore region. This is not a singular example either. The Maryland Department of the Environment's data show that 90 degree and higher temperatures no longer guarantee that our region will exceed federal health standards and suffer Code Orange and Code Red days. We have continued to see this trend this summer with only four Code Orange days and zero Code Red days.

This idea that high temperatures no longer automatically trigger ozone violation days is a fairly new concept for our region. This new understanding will require further public education, especially during ozone season (May through September).

While we can thank advances in technology, regulatory controls and voluntary programs like those administered by local jurisdictions and state agencies, these solutions are incomplete without the individual actions we can all take in our daily lives to help curb bad air.

Clean Air Partners, where I serve as vice-chair, has found that people want to feel educated and are looking for ways to be empowered with actions they can take in their everyday lives. For example, nearly 5,000 individuals and businesses subscribe to our AirAlerts to help protect their health on unhealthy air quality days and take simple actions to improve the air. We see a trend of people switching to the "modes less traveled" like bicycling, walking and telecommuting — all of which contribute to a reduction in vehicle emissions, a common source and largest contributor to ground-level ozone and particle pollution in our region.

The growth of educational resources and behavioral changes can be attributed to the productive relationships that have been cultivated with transportation, sustainability, economic development and education partners. We applaud those motorists who have chosen to purchase or lease electric cars or high-mileage hybrids — which sharply reduce harmful emissions. However, there is still more work to be done, as young people, asthmatics, older adults and those with respiratory and/or pulmonary conditions need everyone's help to breathe easier. For example, we encourage the following steps:

•Use public transportation, carpool or telecommute.

•Turn your air conditioning thermostat up to use less energy and clean heating/air conditioning filters each month.

•Use an electric-powered lawn mower and leaf blower.

•Refuel cars after dusk during the summer to lower evaporation rates.

•Replace your charcoal grill with a propane gas grill.

•Sign-up for educational resources like AirAlerts and access the Air Quality Action Guide at CleanAirPartners.net.

Continued over the long-term, voluntary, individual actions and partnerships to educate the public about what those actions are will be an integral part of the solutions to improving the air in the greater metropolitan Baltimore-Washington region. Together, we can make a difference and help ensure we all have a daily supply of healthy, life-giving clean air to breathe.

Brian O'Malley is vice-chair of the Clean Air Partners' board and president/CEO of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance. His email is bomalley@cmtalliance.org.

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