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Cleaning Up the Air We Breathe

posted on Mon, Jun 24 2013 10:22 am by Andrew Kraus and Joanne Lucas

According to the American Lung Association, our nation’s air quality has improved compared to a decade ago. However, over 131.8 million people still live in areas where air quality is at unhealthy levels.

Air quality is measured through the Air Quality Index (AQI), taking into account ground-level ozone and particulate pollution levels. The AQI’s six levels of measurement range from “good” to “hazardous.” The three worst demarcations – unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous – represent days with such poor AQI that all people should take precautions. On these days, the effects on children, the elderly and those with respiratory ailments can be debilitating, if not life-threatening. And healthy individuals are encouraged to refrain from engaging in strenuous outdoor exercise to avoid potentially developing chronic respiratory or cardiovascular ailments.

In recognition of this problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made information available to health care professionals for advising patients on how to handle poor AQI days (Hint: stay indoors and don’t breathe heavily!). With air quality being a nationwidepublic health problem, what are states doing about it? Some states have partnered with their local health and environmental protection departments to monitor the air quality for a variety of pollutants that come from different sources, like car emissions and building boilers. Other states have partnered with federal agencies to create programs that provide the technical and financial assistance needed to address air quality.

At the forefront of the air quality battle is Maryland, which has some of the strongest air quality laws in the nation. The state’s leadership has consistently pressured the federal government to adopt more stringent Clean Air Act (CAA) standards. Maryland’s largest hurdle to clean air comes from beyond its borders. Over 70 percent of the pollution entering the state originates from the industrial Midwest and South (prevailing winds carry the pollution to Maryland). Largely the result of this interstate pollution, the American Lung Association gave Maryland poor air quality grades in 2012 due to the above-mentioned AQI levels. To rectify this situation, Maryland is considering legal action to hold facilities and local municipalities accountable for failing to adhere to air quality standards.

Interstate air pollution has consistently posed several challenges for states. Hence, the EPA addressed interstate pollution in the Good Neighbor provision of the Clean Air Act. States are allowed to file petitions with the EPA under Section 126 of the Clean Air Act, Interstate Pollution Abatement. Through this remedy, the agency has the power to prevent industrial facilities from violating interstate air pollution provisions. If not through federal initiatives, individual states also have a responsibility to address air quality across state lines.

Under the authority of the CAA, 13 East Coast states and the District of Columbia joined forces to form the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC). Taking a two-pronged approach to improving air quality, the OTC is used as a vehicle to push for more stringent federal regulations and to connect with eastern states that are considering suing Midwestern and Southern states that emit the bulk of the air pollution finding its way to the East Coast. This is not unprecedented; for over 100 years, states have sued each other over interstate water pollution. These lawsuits have resulted in changes that dramatically improved public health – including the creation of effective sewage treatment plants.

Nationwide, poor air quality is a serious concern; especially considering it is worst when we are most likely to be outside – in summer. A comprehensive solution involving state legislation, continued pressure on the federal government and legal action may be an effective way to combat air pollution.

A college professor once said, “if air pollution were purple, it wouldn’t be a problem; cleanup would be swift.” Unfortunately, air pollution is an invisible killer and a major public health issue. It is time for states and counties to take the necessary steps to clean up the air we breathe.

This blog was prepared by Andrew Kraus, J.D., student attorney at the Public Health Law Clinic, and Joanne Lucas, J.D. Candidate 2014, at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, supervised by Kathleen Hoke, Director, and Kerri McGowan Lowrey, Deputy Director, of the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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