Air is cleaner, but not enough for everyone

August 02, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer John W. Frece of the Annapolis Bureau contributed to this article.

For most people, summer is the time to get outdoors -- to work in the garden, play ball or take a walk. But all too often, the sultry season makes Melvin Ridge a prisoner inside his home in Northeast Baltimore.

"I can tell as soon as I open a window or step out the door when the air's not clean," he said last week. "I have to get back into an air-conditioned room or car to get away from it."

Mr. Ridge, a retired truck driver, has chronic emphysema. He needs repeated whiffs of oxygen and a medicine chest full of drugs to help him breathe.

But even that is not enough when the air is polluted, he says.

Summer is smog season in Maryland. For most people, if they even notice, that may mean little more than tightness in the chest, a scratchy throat and maybe some wheezing if they exert themselves on a blistering afternoon. Some have wondered whether the government is making too much fuss over smog, especially because the state plans to fight it by making Baltimore and Washington area motorists wait longer and pay more to pass the never-popular auto emissions tests.

The air is visibly clearer, critics say, and they grumble about having to pay up to $450 in repairs if their cars and trucks flunk the biennial pollution checks. But for Melvin Ridge and those with asthma, allergies and other lung problems, every penny spent on cleaner air is worth it as they struggle for breath.

About 600,000 Marylanders have lung disease, the American Lung Association estimates.

While smog may not be life-threatening for most people, there is growing evidence it can shorten the breath and inflame the lungs of healthy adults and children playing or working outdoors. It also appears to cause problems at levels far below the safety threshold set by the federal government, which means the public is inhaling harmful pollutants more often and for longer periods -- than the government lets on.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), faced with a lawsuit over whether its air-quality standard protects the public, is expected to announce its decision tomorrow on whether to change it.

Officially, Maryland's air has been remarkably smog-free so far this summer. There have only been three days when ozone -- the chief ingredient in smog -- reached unhealthful levels (as defined by the federal government) at one of 15 air-sampling stations around the state.

Ozone barely exceeded the federal air-quality limit of 0.12 parts per million for an hour May 22 in Edgewood and July 10 in Aldino, both in Harford County. It climbed above the federal standard for three hours May 23 in Charles County.

With so few violations of the federal ozone standard, it might seem like overkill to impose major new pollution controls now.

But driven by federal law, that is just what Maryland and most of the rest of the nation are doing.

The state unveiled plans recently to beef up biennial emission tests and expand them to 1.5 million cars and trucks in the Baltimore and Washington areas.

It also has drafted rules requiring 1,500 employers in the Baltimore region to get more of their workers to car pool or take public transit to work.

The federal Clean Air Act requires those measures and a lot more to curb smog, state officials say. But some are skeptical.

"There are going to be a lot of very unhappy motorists," Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County Republican, predicted at a hearing in Annapolis last week on the inspection program.

Del. Anthony M. DiPietro Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, warned that "people will leave the state" to avoid the rising costs of auto pollution controls.

But Gilmore Smith, a retired science teacher in Timonium, declared that he and his wife, Katherine, will leave Maryland in the next few years if the state's air doesn't get cleaner.

Mr. Smith has chronic sinusitis, allergies and occasional asthmatic attacks, which he believes are aggravated by pollution.

"To have asthma to start with is like breathing dust," he explained. "As a function of pollutants in the air, which we see and smell sometimes, I'm totally congested, my eyes smart, and I get frontal headaches."

Asthma and allergies are triggered by factors other than air pollution, including exercise, pollen, dust and temperature.

While inhaling ozone-laden air alone does not bring on breathing problems, recent studies indicate it can make people with chronic lung disease more vulnerable and can worsen their symptoms.

Maryland's air has gotten cleaner in the past 20 years, but smog has hung on despite efforts to banish it.

The Baltimore area has the nation's sixth worst ground-level ozone and the Washington area, the 10th worst, according to the EPA.

The main reason the air seems better this year is the weather, say officials.

Cloudless, windless days when temperatures climb above 90 degrees Fahrenheit are needed to "cook" ozone from the mix of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides being spewed into the air daily by cars, power plants and other sources.

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