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Ozone levels cause air of concern

July 24, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Washington County has started monitoring its air quality, and the results may surprise some people.

"Western Maryland is not as pristine and healthy as everybody seems to think it was," said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment.

Since April, environmental officials, with the help of the county Health Department, began measuring ground-level ozone at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown. The colorless gas makes it harder for people to breathe and can aggravate existing lung problems.

On July 16 and 18, ozone levels rose high enough to be considered unhealthy, the readings showed.

Most days, ozone levels never climbed higher than the "moderate" range. On those days, environmental officials still recommend people take steps to reduce ozone levels by consolidating trips and errands, limiting idling and setting air conditioners to 78 degrees.

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Out of 106 days monitored so far in the county, 24 days had air quality in the range considered "good" by the Maryland Department of Environment. On 12 days, ozone reached "moderately unhealthy" levels.

The young, the elderly and those with lung problems are particularly susceptible to the effects of ozone pollution. But even in otherwise healthy people, ozone can lower resistance to colds and pneumonia, damage lungs and cause coughing and throat irritation

The air quality deteriorates as the summer wears on because hot and humid weather contributes to the formation of ozone.

The process starts with pollution from vehicles and smokestacks.

"That stuff mixes together and is literally cooked in the presence of sunlight," Banks said.

Lack of wind and rain also contribute to higher ozone levels, he said.

Weather forecasts help the Department of Environment predict ozone levels so it can warn people with lung problems to stay indoors. When any station records a reading high enough to violate federal pollution standards, the department issues a "code red" warning.

The Washington County station has never triggered a code red. But six of the 16 other stations, from Carroll County to Cecil County, have registered illegally high ozone levels this year, Banks said.

The state had 14 violations in 1998, matching the previous year. The summer of 1986 holds the record for the worst levels, with 36 code red days, Banks said.

The 1990 Clean Air Act required states to improve air quality, leading to programs such as the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program. While the program has lowered emissions, there are more cars on the road than ever, Banks said.

Local legislators have tried with no success to get Washington County exempt from the program.

Neither environmental or health officials can say exactly what is causing the pollution in Washington County. They speculate much is generated by traffic on Interstates 70 and 81.

Some pollution likely blows in from the west, Banks said. Neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania, along with other states upwind, significantly contribute to Maryland's ozone levels, Banks said.

Maryland wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to compel those states to crack down on power plant emissions.

On the two days that the ozone in Washington County reached unhealthy levels, Community Rescue Service did not see an increase in ambulance calls for respiratory problems, said spokesman Brent Bankson. People must have been heeding warnings and staying inside, Bankson said.

Franklin County, Pa., has had an air monitoring station for two years.

The high-altitude station in the Michaux State Forest mountains 10 miles east of Chambersburg, Pa., has never recorded an unhealthy reading, said Jeff McCloud, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia does not have an ozone monitoring station.

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