Credit: George Danby

Maine’s air has been dangerously unhealthy this summer. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than two dozen notices for high ozone and unhealthy conditions since April. These air quality warnings expose the danger lurking behind last month’s proposal by the LePage administration that Maine withdraw from the Ozone Transport Region.

This is a collaboration among 12 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia. The ozone partnership has been reducing air pollution flowing into Maine since its creation as part of Maine Sen. George Mitchell’s 1990 revision of the federal Clean Air Act. In fact, the ozone partnership may be one of the most beneficial components of the Clean Air Act to the health of Maine people.

We know that Maine has one of the highest asthma rates in the country and that more than 200,000 Mainers are living with lung disease. That is one out of seven of our family, friends and neighbors. We also know that air pollution doesn’t respect state borders. As the tailpipe of the nation, Maine gets an overwhelming and disproportionate amount of pollution from downwind states.

The American Lung Association in Maine is strongly opposed to abandoning the regional partnership, and as a doctor, I couldn’t agree more. Pulling out of this long-standing regional partnership could endanger the health of thousands of Maine residents and visitors.

Ozone is one of the least-controlled pollutants in our air, and one of the most dangerous. I tell my patients to think of ozone’s effects as a toxic chemical burn on their lungs. Health impacts include shortness of breath, asthma attacks, increases in respiratory infections, increases in emergency room visits and even premature death. Studies show that even low levels of ozone may be deadly.

The evidence is clear that Maine’s air quality is not as healthy as it should and could be. In some areas, ozone pollution levels are barely under the current Environmental Protection Agency standard of 70 parts per million. No one wants to live in the dirtiest air allowable by federal law.

This past spring, one of my asthmatic patients was in my office when he should have been on the lacrosse field. His practice had been canceled because of high ozone levels. He was used to sitting out practices on bad air quality days, but he wasn’t used to having his entire team sidelined with him. High ozone levels are affecting children and adults who are healthy, as well as those with lung disease.

As a doctor, I have inhalers and prescription medications to fight asthma and respiratory diseases, but policymakers have tools like the Ozone Transport Region and the Clean Air Act to set fair and common-sense pollution limits. We need to be doing more, not less, to reduce the air pollution that is dangerous for our health — pollution that’s keeping kids off the playground and adults home from work.

The stakes are high: our health, productivity, thousands of jobs and the Maine brand all depend on clean and healthy air. So, while the LePage administration prefers to “go it alone,” this is bluster without strategy. When it comes to air pollution, Maine has a lot more to lose when states don’t work together.

The prescription for healthy air is clear: we need to clean up pollution from smokestacks and vehicles, block polluters from weakening the Clean Air Act, and collaborate with regional partners to limit the pollution that crosses state lines.

More than most Northeast states, Maine needs and benefits from a strong Ozone Transport Region. We urge the Department of Environmental Protection to take its own air quality warnings to heart and reconsider this short-sighted proposal that would jeopardize the health of so many Maine kids and adults.

Dr. Marguerite Pennoyer is a physician specializing in allergy & immunology from Scarborough and the vice chair of the American Lung Association in Maine Leadership Board.

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