WASHINGTON – Maryland had the 12th-worst ozone pollution in the nation last year, recording 40 “smog days” in 2002, according to a study released Tuesday by the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
MaryPIRG officials said that while the number of smog days in Maryland was up from 30 in 2001, the state was still well behind California, which led all states with 143 smog days in 2002.
Gillian Ream of MaryPIRG said the higher ozone levels are a strain on the health of Maryland residents, especially on the health of children, senior citizens and people with respiratory diseases.
In Maryland alone, smog triggers 180,000 asthma attacks and sends about 3,900 people to the emergency room each season, said Cindy Parker, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
But while state officials agreed that ozone pollution is a problem, they said the situation is not as bad as the MaryPIRG report makes it appear.
“Their numbers are inflated,” said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
He said the study recorded every time an individual ozone monitoring station, over an eight-hour period, exceeded federal ozone standards. Because there are multiple monitors in each state — 16 in Maryland — one smoggy day could be counted as numerous “exceedances” in the MaryPIRG report.
McIntire also pointed out that last year was the “hottest, driest year on record” — the sort of weather that experts say contributes to the formation of ozone by cooking a mixture of gases that come in part from emissions from cars and factories.
“It’s understood we’re going to have bad air quality,” under those conditions, McIntire said.
Donna Heron, a spokeswoman for the mid-Atlantic region of the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed with McIntire that ozone levels are “kind of at the mercy of the weather.” The MaryPIRG report notes that exceedances are down this year, which has been cooler and wetter than last year.
Heron said transportation is the single largest cause of pollution in Maryland, but that the state also has a problem with ozone transport — bad air that blows in from other states.
Heron said Maryland is “really one of the more progressive states” in trying to address air pollution issues, and has showed initiative by joining a new program to reduce nitrogen dioxide emissions this year, one year ahead of many other states.
McIntire said the state has tried to curb the ozone problem through programs like vehicle emissions inspections program. The state also encourages residents to use mass transit and HOV lanes to reduce the number of cars on the roads.
“It’s no question,” McIntire said. “We agree Maryland’s air quality needs to be better.”
But MaryPIRG’s Ream urged policy makers to continue to push for better air quality standards.
“We can’t depend on the weather to protect Americans from breathing polluted air,” Ream said. “The only good thing about smog is that we have the power to stop it.”