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Report: Maine's Air Quality Shows Some Improvement Over Last Three Years

Willis Ryder Arnold
Maine Public
Portland basks in clear skies Saturday, April 4, 2020.

The partial shutdown of the U.S. economy has had one healthful effect:  It has lowered air pollution by a significant amount. The American Lung Association is out with its latest State Of The Air report that looks at the longer-term trends. Joining Maine Public's morning host Irwin Gratz to talk about the report's findings is Lance Boucher of the American Lung Association of Maine.

GRATZ: Lance, welcome.

LANCE BOUCHER: Thanks for having us.

So what were the major findings in this report for Maine?

Air quality in Maine is slightly improved across the state in most areas, but that there remains work to be done. We've seen dramatic improvements in air quality over the last 20 years. But this report does show that too many communities have people live in them where air quality still threatens health, and that climate change is making air quality worse.

Are there particular kinds of pollution that the report identifies as being lingering problems for Maine?

The report looks at two types of pollution, ozone and particulate matter. Across the state of Maine we look at 11 out of the 16 counties - not all counties have monitoring devices within them to report data - but ozone is a particular concern. The worst grade in the report is York County, with four high ozone days this year. That kind of continues up the Maine coast, with Washington County getting a lower grade than the rest of inland, as well as Knox County.

The report also identified a difference in ozone pollution between Portland and Bangor. Is that largely a local effect? Or is it partially a consequence of Portland being physically closer to the denser Northeast megalopolis, if you will?

It's a combination of factors. Portland and Cumberland County have had days where we have had orange ozone alerts, which makes it unhealthy air quality for individuals that have an underlying lung condition, or even healthy individuals who work or exercise outdoors. Some of that can be attributed to denser population, like you mentioned, obviously, greater traffic in some of those regions. Some of the pollution is not from Maine - I mean, a lot of our stuff comes to us produced from other areas.

Now ozone pollution - it tends to be a summer effect, because it's a combination of pollution that's then cooked by the stronger sunlight we often get in the summertime. So I'm curious as to whether or not this is one of the ways in which climate change, perhaps, serves to make the air pollution challenges for Maine worse.
This report looks at a three-year period, and it is those three years - three of the five hottest years on record. So we have seen an increase in ozone during that period, and climate change has contributed - higher heat does drive more ozone-high level days, and unhealthy air days.

Right. Let's talk next about particle pollution. What threat does that pose to health, and what are its sources?

It's a mix of tiny solid and liquid particles that are in the air that we breathe. And these particles can get trapped in the lungs. And they're so small that they can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream, just like oxygen molecules. So, research has shown that breathing high levels over a few days, enters your bloodstream and can shorten life. It contributes to lung cancer, cardiovascular harm, respiratory harm, worsened asthma, worsened COPD.

So what steps can the state of Maine take to make further improvements over the long run?

We've seen the states come together in the Transportation Climate Initiative and measures like that to improve regional air quality. And those policies and proposals will contribute to improved air quality for Mainers and the entire region. So there are things we can do that way - measures to encourage the use of lower emission vehicles at the state level could contribute to improved air quality in the state. Encouraging people to use cleaner burning wood stoves helped as well. So there's lots of measures that can be done, both on an individual basis but also encouraged by governmental actions.

Lance Boucher, of the American Lung Association of Maine, thank you very much for the time. We appreciate it.