Bmore due for "Code red" unhealthy air today
It's not just the heat, or the humidity - it's the bad air. Experts are forecasting "code red," or seriously unhealthy, levels of smog or ozone pollution today in the Baltimore area.
Air quality is expected to be bad enough today to cause even healthy people to experience shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, nausea, chest pain, and eye and throat irritation if exercising or working outdoors. People jogging, biking or making any other sort of exertion may feel pain in their chest when taking deep breaths. And people with asthma or cardiac or respiratory conditions are likely to have more severe reactions to such high ozone levels.
Authorities recommend that people avoid outdoor exercise when ozone levels are expected to hit red levels. And Clean Air Partners, a nonprofit group that attempts to educate the public about air quality, recommends that people take steps to reduce the pollution that forms ozone, by reducing driving, turning off lights and reducing electricity use and by not operating gasoline-powered lawn equipment.
If ozone does reach forecasted "red" levels, it would be the fifth time this year in the Baltimore area, compared with just two "code red" days in the region by this time last summer.
Ozone levels are forecast to reach "code orange" levels in the Washington area, with air quality still bad enough to cause discomfort and health problems for sensitive individuals. The DC area has had six "code red" days so far this year.
Unless I missed one, this is the first time air-quality forecasters have warned ahead of time that ozone would hit code red levels. They've forecast plenty of "code orange" days, only to see air quality turned out to be actually worse than expected. They've issued alerts after the fact - sometimes hours later, too late to do any good at warning people to stay indoors.
Officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment say forecasters aren't low-balling their air quality predictions. Several of those "orange" forecasts were for ozone levels to climb nearly to the red level, they pointed out, so they weren't significantly off.
Smog or ozone pollution forms when vehicle exhaust, paint fumes and power plant emissions, among other things, mix in the lower atmosphere under strong sunlight and generally windless skies.
But here in Maryland, as in most other eastern states, our air quality is a function of what people in other states are doing, not just us. State officials estimate that 50 to 70 percent of the ozone affecting Marylanders' breathing comes from out of state, borne by prevailing winds from sources to our west and south.
That long-distance pollution is why the Environmental Protection Agency last week ordered power plants in 27 states to sharply curtail their emissions of nitrogen oxide, a key smog ingredient. The rule also requires steep cuts in emissions of sulfur dioxide, a source of fine particle pollution that also impairs breathing, though year-round, not just in summer.
(2007 Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)