It seems that whenever warm temperatures and muggy weather return to Maine, air quality warnings follow. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) often issues air quality alerts and warnings when the temperatures increase, advising those with respiratory problems to stay indoors and take other precautions. So far in 2018, the Maine DEP has issued two air quality warnings. In 2017, they issued six.
Wednesday the Environment America and Environment Maine Research & Policy Centers published a report about air quality in the United States. The report offers city-specific data, and it showed that more than 500,000 people in Portland experienced 26 days of degraded air quality in 2016. Additionally, 150,000 people in Bangor had 46 days with degraded air quality, and 107,000 people in Lewiston had 24 days. In total, more than half of Maine residents experienced nearly a month or more of days with unclean air in 2016, an increase from previous years.
In a statement following the report, Madeleine Fenderson, an organizer with Environment Maine Research and Policy Center said that “even one day with polluted air is too many.”
Christy Leavitt, senior campaign director for Environment America Research and Policy Center's Environmental Defense Campaign in Washington D.C., said the report is significant right now.
“Right at the beginning of the summer it is often a time of year temperatures increase that we see an increase in smog pollution,” Leavitt said. “So it's particularly timely as we head into the summer.”
She also cites a change in federal policy as a concern.
“We definitely have had great improvements to where our air was in the early 1970’s, but it's still too much polluted air,” said Leavitt. “And one of the things that's happening on the federal level is that the Trump administration is weakening current air quality standards and global warming standards.”
Fenderson expressed worries about Maine specifically which, because of its location, is sometimes called the “tailpipe of the nation.”
“This is really important because Maine actually has the third highest asthma rate in the country, which is honestly pretty unacceptable for a state that really doesn't have any big cities as well as we have hundreds of miles of undeveloped land,” said Fenderson. “And where we're sitting in America, based off of wind currents, is that we're getting a lot of ozone and particulate matter coming through with the wind patterns from the Midwest.”
Public health officials have warned that this pollution and poor air quality can lead to several adverse health risks, especially for children, the elderly and those who already have trouble breathing.
“It can increase asthma attacks, it can lead to premature deaths,” said Leavitt. “That's not necessarily on one day, but over time the accumulated air pollution can lead to a premature death. It also can lead to cardiovascular problems. And so the things that somebody might experience is if you have asthma, on days when there's elevated air pollution you're more likely to have an asthma attack.”
Fenderson said different types of pollution affect people in different ways.
“Smog, or ground level ozone, produces inflammation similar to a sunburn in the lungs, causes respiratory problems from coughing and throat irritation to asthma and permanent damage to lung tissue,” said Fenderson. “Particulate pollution consists of extremely small particles that contain toxic chemicals, and these particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream, causing repertory and cardiovascular problems.”
Fenderson said the main culprit for this contamination is exhaust from fumes.
“The way that these emissions are entering the system is through the transportation industry,” she said. “So again this goes right back to cars.”
Currently the Environmental Protection Agency, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, is considering a move to make clean car standards more lax. These standards regulate the fuel efficiency and carbon emissions of automobiles sold in the United States.
Fenderson said that regulations on the national level are necessary in keeping Mainers healthy.
“Even if we had really great emission standards in Maine, the way that the air currents work in the country, we're getting so much from the Midwest anyway,” she said. “In order for us to really see the results in our air quality it needs to be a federal mandate.”
“We're really urging our elected officials to support the clean car standards as they are today because air quality is very much a bipartisan issue.”
The updated Clean Car Standards are expected to come out next week, followed by the new federal ozone standards.
This story was originally published June 27, 2018 at 4:52 p.m. ET.