When the air is bad, Gwendolyn Bowers can't escape it.
She doesn't even try. She barricades herself in her Glen Burnie home and waits until it blows over.
"It's like I'm a tester for it," said Bowers, a schoolteacher whoretired in 1986 when her lungs became severely irritated. "I can just stick my head out the window, and I can tell immediately the air isbad. "
And if she does venture out? "Pretty soon, I'm wheezing and on my way back home."
The problem is ground-level ozone, an air pollutant that can make even healthy adults feel short of breath, cough and wheeze their way through a day, said Dr. Rebecca Bascom at theUniversity of Maryland School of Medicine.
The air breathed by county residents violated federal standards for ozone at least seven times this summer. Those violations were detected at air-quality monitoring stations at Fort Meade and in Davidsonville.
As a region, Baltimore violated the federal standards 17 times between May 30 and Sept. 16, said John Goheen, a state Department of the Environment spokesman. That is up from 11 violations last year, but down from a record 36 in 1988, Goheen said.
The DOE operates 15 air-quality monitors around Baltimore, including those at Fort Meade and Davidsonville.
Six violations, scattered throughout the summer, were detected at the Fort Meade station, Goheen said. The Davidsonville station recordedviolations on June 28 and on July 20, an especially warm day when monitors throughout Maryland registered high ozone levels.
"It's been a very hard year for people with respiratory problems because of the heat, humidity and whatever it is polluting the air," said Mrs. D. Bowen, a Severna Park resident who suffers from emphysema.
Ground-level ozone, the chief component of smog, is formed when sunlight reacts with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from automobiles, industry and other sources, such as paints and cleaning solvents.
In Baltimore, the ozone violations appear to be a summertime phenomenon, Goheen said. Ozone levels rise with the temperature.
Still, ozone levels in Baltimore rank as the fourth-worst among metropolitan regions nationwide, according to the EPA. Baltimore follows Los Angeles, Houston and New York.
Air pollution may reach unhealthy levels much morefrequently than federal and state standards indicate, said Shelley Buckingham, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association. Medical research shows harmful effects at more prevalent, lower levels of ozone, she said.
"It's important people know it's not just a once-in-a-while problem," Bascom said.
Although ozone in the upper atmosphere shields people from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, ground-level ozone can irritate people's lungs, reducing their ability to breathe easily.
Those most vulnerable to ozone pollution are the elderly, infants and people with chronic breathing problems. But even healthy adults who exercise or work outdoors can suffer.
Ozone also caninjure animals and damage crops, forests and man-made materials.
Particularly in the suburbs, too few people realize how the nearly odorless, colorless ozone robs them of vitality, Bascom said. The symptoms are vague, resembling a cold or flu, and even doctors would tend to treat it as such.
"Sometimes, it smells like new-mowed hay," Bascom said. "People have this misperception that Baltimore City has the air pollution problem. They seem to believe as long as there is an open field next door to them they are fine."
Clouds of ozone shiftin the wind. It's not uncommon for the smog from Washington to driftto Davidsonville or from Baltimore north to Harford County, said DOEspokesman Goheen.
To Bascom, no community that relies heavily on automobiles is safe. "It would be incorrect for Anne Arundel County to think its only problem is being downwind of Washington," she said. "I've driven through Anne Arundel County before, and I can tell you it isn't car-free."