What’s next for communities when air quality concerns fall on deaf ears?

Residents on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are asking for more study on the impact of poultry house emissions on air quality. (Dave Harp)

At the Maryland Environmental Health Network, air quality is chief among the issues we tackle. Although it’s not well highlighted, Maryland’s air quality has problems. Both our citizens and the Chesapeake Bay are vulnerable. 

The causes of poor air quality are many, from industrial pollution and waste disposal to agriculture, truck traffic, emissions from an ever-growing network of pipelines stretching from Canada to Virginia, and bad breezes blowing through the Ohio River Valley. 

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, about one-third of the nitrogen polluting the Bay comes through the air. And across Maryland, more than 430,000 adults have asthma. In fact, our residents have an above-average chance of experiencing the onset of asthma in their lifetimes. 

Air quality respects no borders, boundaries or jurisdictions, so to protect both people and the Bay we must act at every level to defend air quality and the people and waterways that depend on it. 

This year, the Maryland legislature failed to support a bill proposing the Community Healthy Air Act, and the impact of this legislative loss will fall on our friends and neighbors. 

The Community Healthy Air Act was championed by several Eastern Shore communities who got together with like-minded residents, legislators and health professionals, who wanted to understand the reasons for increasing episodes of asthma, heart disease and cancer, as well as the number of missed school and work days that are due to illness. 

Members of these communities petitioned their local health offices, representatives and agencies to get a clear answer. The proposed legislation included a study with the simple premise that bad air anywhere is a threat to people’s health and longevity. They asked that the study review  conditions on the ground, the quality of the air and the impact, if any, from large-scale poultry operations nearby. 

Today, they still have no answers. And the reality is, even if the study had been supported by the legislature, it may not have included the most relevant data unless it explicitly included input from residents who are themselves experts on their own health experiences. 

In the meantime, as summer nears, hot days mean that ammonia, volatile chemicals and other irritants will continue to vaporize inside the poultry operations dotting the peninsula. As these conditions accrue, they threaten people living or working nearby.

As we look to the future, we would be smart to remember that Maryland operates 25 air monitoring stations, but only two are on the Eastern Shore and neither is located near the poultry houses of concern to residents. 

This means we don’t have enough information to assess or address local air quality concerns. It also means we have an incomplete picture of the risks facing the local population.  

So communities grappling with declining health are still without the information they need to more clearly identify issues or precisely advocate for solutions. 

We have a moral obligation to fill these data gaps. We must empower concerned residents facing health challenges with the tools they need to engage with willing and able institutions to measure, compare and test the air around them through small-scale projects. This would give them the ability to minimally prepare limits for the routes of exposure, whether or not the political winds are in their favor.

We have the tools to map the harm, and we can use the information to spark action at agencies charged with protecting human health and the environment. A wave is coming. That wave is citizen science. We have seen great efforts to engage residents in the measurement of water quality to protect the life-giving capacity of the Chesapeake Bay. It is our hope that we can count on the same support for residents who have clearly done the work to get the legislature to take up their concerns about air quality and its relationship to the ill effects they are experiencing here and now. 

When institutions we know and trust fail in their duty to protect our health, who pays? We all do. 

Tamara Toles O'Laughlin is the executive director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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