Portland is one of four Northeast cities to have reached its lowest level of ozone ever, but the American Lung Association gave York County a failing grade, despite having fewer high ozone days than last year, according to its 2017 air quality report released Wednesday.
York is the only one of the 11 Maine counties responding to the association's 2017 "State of the Air" study that was given a failing grade. York has an estimated population of 201,169. Ozone, or smog, is one of the most common forms of hazardous air pollution, along with particle pollution, or soot.
"I don't want to sound like an alarmist with the 12 high ozone days [in York County], because the air quality is improving [from 14 days last year]. The Clean Air Act is working and has had a sizeable impact," Lance Boucher, director, public policy for Maine, American Lung Association of the Northeast, told Mainebiz. "York, Cumberland, Knox and Hancock counties all have higher ozone due to coastal air currents." Those counties received an F, D, C and C grade, respectively, from the association regarding ozone levels. Cumberland had seven high ozone days and Hancock and Knox each had six.
"Maine is the tailpipe of the nation. We're downwind and collect a lot of our pollution from the Midwest, such as coal pollution," Boucher added. "A good sign [from our report] is the rest of nation's air quality is getting better."
The 2017 report covers data in 2013-2015. Last year's covered data from 2012-2014.
Boucher said the good marks in other counties and two of Maine's largest cities, Bangor and Portland, show that legislative and regulatory action pursued by the association on the state and federal levels has worked. That includes efforts like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Power Act, and the 2015 revised ozone standards.
The Portland metro area saw good news, rising from a rank of 99th in ozone pollution to a more favorable 49th this year. Bangor was 136th, the same as last year, of the 250 cities surveyed. A total of 3,000 counties nationwide were surveyed.
Boucher added that data on particle pollution was sketchy due to a lack of monitors, but Penobscot County, where particulates were measured, had "great data," he said. The five counties in Maine that did not report data do not have monitors, he added.
Unhealthful levels of ozone put people at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, lung cancer, worsened chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular harm.
A separate study by Abt Associates of Cambridge, Mass., found that since 2009, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, launches by 10 states in the Northeast, including Maine, has significantly reduced air pollution from fossil fuel power plants. The report found that up to 830 lives overall were saved, 8,200 asthma attacks were avoided, 39,000 lost work days were averted and $5.7 billion was saved in health and other benefits.
In Maine, fewer days of work were lost in 2014 than in 2009, with 62 days in 2014 compared to 327 in 2009. Upper respiratory symptoms decreased from 60 in 2009 to 12 in 2014. The value of avoided health effects ranged from about $31 million to $69 million in 2009 compared to a much lower $6 million to $12 million in 2014.