Maryland’s Air Quality Raises Serious Questions

A few weeks ago, I took my son and one of his friends to a birthday party. As we headed there, I eavesdropped on their conversation. They were comparing soccer skills, and why my son’s friend wasn’t quite as fast as he was on the field. His friend lowered his voice and in a near whisper said, “I don’t like to admit it, but I have asthma. And that’s one reason I can’t run fast.” Later, as they were talking about things they were really afraid of, his friend said, “Really bad allergies; that’s what scares me the most.”

Asthma is a frightening thing for children – and their parents: a tightening in the chest paired with the feeling they can’t breathe. Childhood asthma rates are rising across the country for reasons that scientists don’t entirely understand.

One of the triggers of asthma and allergies is environmental pollutants, including smog. Smog – which is actually another name for ground-level ozone – is particularly harmful to children, the elderly, and those whose immune systems are compromised. Increased smog is claiming tens of thousands of lives annually across the nation – more than those killed in traffic accidents – while also contributing to the development of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and other life-threatening health conditions.

Smog begins with emissions largely created by the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil in our cars and gas and coal burned by our industries and utilities. It arises when these emissions and certain compounds, such as methane and nitrogen oxides, react in the presence of direct sunlight and heat.

Despite doing well on many of the other indicators of environmental health, the state of Maryland is doing quite poorly on the number of “code red” days when the volume of smog is high, according to the recently updated Genuine Progress Indicators, or GPI. The Maryland GPI is grounded in a set of 26 indicators that provide a more comprehensive set of social, environmental, and economic measurements to help assess the state’s overall wellbeing.

While many of those indicators show the positive results of good environmental stewardship, this one indicator – for code-red smog days – jumps off the charts. Between 2008 and 2010, Marylanders saw a 37 percent increase in the number of days when smog reached dangerous levels.

Though smog levels declined dramatically in the state from a high of 90 parts per billion in the 1970s to around 10 parts per billion in 2008, air quality deteriorated over the next two years. Smog levels spiked back to almost 45 parts per billion in 2010 according to the state’s GPI.

Despite everything the state is doing to lower its overall global warming emissions – and Maryland is acting relatively aggressively, with a plan to reduce its emissions by 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020 – the state must do more to reduce smog like provide better public transportation options and more noncombustible, renewable energy alternatives. These changes can go a long way, but not all the way in solving the problem, given that winds can blow smog hundreds of miles from its source.

This is one reason the 40-year-old Clean Air Act is so important. Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, was prepared to strengthen national smog standards a few months ago, but President Obama announced in September that he would delay implementation of stricter Clean Air Act provisions until 2013.

The EPA estimates that tighter smog regulations could prevent 12,000 premature deaths and $100 billion in health care costs. Big businesses, represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, used the EPA’s own estimates of the costs of compliance – ranging from $19 billion to $90 billion by 2020 – to persuade Obama that these tighter standards would be too costly.

Perhaps Obama is kicking the regulatory “can” down the road, waiting until 2013, if he’s reelected, to implement tougher smog standards. Or perhaps he’s decided, in the battle between business-as-usual and the lives and health of our children, to side with business.

Let’s make sure whoever occupies the White House hears loud and clear: Clean air is every child’s right. It’s a right as important as life itself.

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she’s conducting research around ways in which alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland’s “Genuine Progress Indicator,” can be used to build a more sustainable society. www.ips-dc.org