Report: Maine’s air cleaner, but still reaching unhealthy levels

Posted April 24, 2013, at 9:28 a.m.

Maine’s air is cleaner than in years past, but too many of the state’s residents are breathing in pollution that contributes to a host of serious health problems, according to a new report.

In the American Lung Association’s 14th annual “State of the Air” report, released Wednesday, none of Maine’s counties received a failing grade for air pollution, but some areas recorded spikes in unhealthy air-quality days.

The report, covering 2009-2011, examined the two most widespread types of air pollution: ozone, the main ingredient in smog, and air-particle pollution, based on readings from official monitoring sites across the country.

Ozone, a gas that occurs naturally in the atmosphere in small amounts, is fueled by emissions from cars and trucks, smokestacks, coal-fired power plants and chemicals such as paint fumes. Particle pollution consists of tiny specks of pollutants, from a wide range of sources including power plants, tailpipes and burning wood, that are suspended in the air.

Maine has made progress on ozone levels, with Androscoggin County, for example, improving its grade from a B in the last report to an A, said Ed Miller, an Augusta-based spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast. Four counties — Androscoggin, Aroostook, Oxford and Sagadahoc — made the list of cleanest counties for ozone pollution, receiving A grades and reporting no days with unhealthy levels, he noted.

At the same time, York and Hancock counties earned D grades for ozone, Miller said.

On particle pollution, Maine saw no grade changes from last year. Bangor was one of 16 cities nationally considered the cleanest for particle pollution, which was measured by both daily spikes and annual levels. Hancock County tied for 10th on the list of the top 25 cleanest counties in the country for annual particle pollution.

But Aroostook and Oxford counties each reported a “red” day, which indicates that concentrations of particle pollutants over a 24-hour period exceeded national limits for healthy air. That’s new for Maine — last year no county in Maine recorded a red day, Miller said.

“Why is this troubling? Because while an orange day means the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups, a red day means the air is unhealthy for all of us,” he said.

The “disturbing trend” of such short-term spikes in particle pollution also was seen nationally.

“We want to see residents in every county in Maine breathing in healthy air so parents don’t have to worry that poor air quality might cause their child to have an asthma attack, and people who suffer from lung diseases or are otherwise at heightened risk of being adversely affected by air pollution don’t feel like they need to stay inside,” Miller said.

For Deborah Colman, 60, of Hermon, air pollution has triggered breathing problems and even hospital stays. Colman, a retired nurse who suffers from emphysema and bronchitis, said she avoids venturing outside on high ozone days and always makes sure to roll up her car windows to steer clear of diesel fumes that can trigger an asthma attack.

“If I’m traveling on the highway, I absolutely have to close the car up completely, because of the big trucks and the fumes they put off,” Colman said.

Particle pollution, sometimes called soot, can lodge deep in lung tissue and even pass into the bloodstream, according to Jeff Seyler, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast. Spikes in the pollution can contribute to heart attacks and stroke, while exposure over months and years contributes to cancer, he said.

Particle pollution is especially dangerous to infants, children, seniors, people with lung or heart disease, and those who work or exercise regularly outdoors, Seyler said. While those groups are particularly vulnerable, air pollution does not necessarily cause such health conditions.

Ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant, and new evidence warns that it can harm the cardiovascular, central nervous and reproductive systems, as well as increase the risk of lower birth weight in newborns, he said.

“When ozone levels are unacceptably high, it harms human health and threatens lives,” Seyler said. “Breathing in ozone pollution is often compared to a sunburn on the lungs or having sandpaper rubbed against your lungs, but it’s far more harmful than that sounds.”

Colman also worries about another pollutant cited in the report as a major problem in Maine’s cold climate: wood smoke. It drifts to her house from neighbors’ homes during the winter and from nearby campgrounds in the summer, Colman said.

“There were times when just smelling a campfire would put me into an asthma attack and I’d end up in the hospital,” she said.

About 17 percent of Maine homes heat primarily with wood, and another 25 percent use it as a supplemental heat source, Miller said.

Residential wood-burning devices, including stoves and outdoor wood boilers, are the largest residential source of particle pollution nationally, according to the report. The Lung Association urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to update its standards for wood-burning devices, which date back to 1988.

More broadly, the Clean Air Act and stronger pollution standards have put a major dent in air quality problems across the U.S., the report found. The country’s air has gotten cleaner even as the population, the economy, energy use, and miles driven have increased greatly, the report said. The authors also credited reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants and the transition to cleaner diesel fuels and engines.

Still, nearly 132 million people in the U.S., or 42 percent of the population, live in counties with air that’s unhealthy too often, the report found.

The Lung Association urged the EPA to issue final regulations for cleaner gasoline and car emissions, defend the Clean Air Act against industry polluters and continue working to clean up coal-fired power plants, the source of much of the pollution drifting into Maine from the Midwest.

The group also called for beefing up air-quality monitoring programs. The report collected data from only about 900 counties, less than a third of all counties nationally.

In Maine, four counties have no monitors for ozone or fine particles (Franklin, Lincoln, Somerset and Waldo), while five monitor for only one of the two pollutants, Miller said.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection places the monitoring devices, which can cost around $10,000 and up, in areas of high priority, based on “our best technical and scientific judgement,” said Andrew Johnson, who oversees air monitoring data for the department.

Given the cost and Maine’s vast geography, DEP picks sites where pollution problems are anticipated to affect both people and the environment, based on historical data and activities such as traffic that contribute to pollution, he said.

To view the State of the Air report, visit stateoftheair.org.

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