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Emma Rotner,
Environment Maine

Portland’s health at risk with 61 dirty air days in 2015

For Immediate Release

Portland, ME – Air pollution remains a major threat to our health, according to a new report from Environment Maine Research & Policy Center, Our Health at Risk: Why Are Millions of Americans Still Breathing Unhealthy Air? In 2015, people here in Portland experienced 61 unhealthy air pollution days, increasing the risk of premature death, asthma attacks and other adverse health impacts.

“Even one day with unhealthy air is too many,” said Emma Rotner, campaign organizer with Environment Maine. 

“Burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and gas threatens our health,” said Spencer Thibodeau, Portland City Councilor and chair of the Sustainability Committee. “Which is why Portland is working on reducing its carbon footprint and is shifting to more clean and renewable energy." 

The report comes during National Public Health Week, a celebration of efforts to tackle the underlying causes of disease – like air pollution – and ensure that all people have a chance to live long and healthy lives.

Although our air is less polluted than it was 30 years ago, dirty air is still a major health problem. Maine is often considered the tailpipe of the U.S, due to the air pollution that comes from the west. Additionally, the Clean Air Act was originally called the Muskie Act, after Maine Senator Ed Muskie, who was instrumental in drafting the act. Protecting our air and our environment is key to who we are as Mainers. Despite that fact, President Trump is taking an axe to important programs that could help clean up our air. In just the last month, the Trump Administration has:

  • Instructed the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan, the largest step the United States has ever taken to cut dangerous global warming pollution;

  • Proposed to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, a “get out of jail free card” for polluters;

  • Instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back federal clean cars standards that were supposed to prevent 6 billion metric tons of global warming pollution; and

  • Told the Department of Interior to rewrite air pollution regulations for oil and gas drilling.

These actions will have significant health impacts. Blocking the Clean Power Plan alone will slow progress in cleaning our air – leading to 3,600 additional premature deaths, 90,000 more asthma attacks in children, and 300,000 more missed work and school days by 2030.

Our Health at Risk reviews EPA records of air pollution levels across the country, focusing on smog and soot – dangerous pollutants that come from burning dirty fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Key findings include:

  • People in Portland experienced 22 days with elevated smog pollution and 61 days with elevated soot pollution in 2015.

  • Across Maine, 5 cities had unhealthy levels of air pollution on at least 46 days during 2015, including Lewiston-Auburn, Portland-South Portland, Bangor, Oxford, and Aroostook County.

Many Mainers may be exposed to air pollution even more severe than described here because they live in local pollution “hotspots,” such as near freeways, airports and industrial facilities – facing greater health impacts. For example, people who live near highly traveled roads are at increased risk of developing lung cancer, and at greater risk of death from stroke, lung disease and heart disease.

“There's no safe level of exposure to smog and particulate pollution,” said Elizabeth Ridlington, “Policy Analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. "Elevated levels of air pollution – even levels the federal government says are safe for most people – hurt our health.”

“Maine is often considered to be on the tailpipe of the U.S.; air pollution from the west puts all Mainer’s health at risk, but most especially our children, the ill, and the elderly,” said Karen A. D’Andrea, Executive Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility Maine Chapter.

It’s not just soot and smog. We also have to worry about global warming pollution. Warming is extending the smog season across more of the year, and driving up smog levels on hot days.

“On hot and humid days, ozone becomes concentrated leading to increases in breathing difficulties and asthma especially in children and the elderly. Doctors can expect more children making trips to the ER for asthma attacks. These are frightened children who can’t breathe with terrified parents worrying about their child dying. These days also impact the elderly many of whom are already experiencing health problems,” said D’Andrea.

"Threats to the Clean Power Plan and Clean Cars Standard are pushing us backwards on clean air and steps to fight climate change. In Portland we are working to reduce our pollution and implement more clean energy" Said Thibodeau.

Speakers urged Maine’s elected leaders to stand up to attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act, to maintain the strength of the nation’s Clean Car Standards, and to accelerate our transition to clean energy.

In the face of reckless and dangerous actions from the Trump Administration on clean air Senators Collins and King should stand up for clean air protections, In 2010 alone, these protections saved 160,000 lives, prevented 130,000 heart attacks and avoided 41,000 hospital admissions across America. 

“We can’t separate our health from our climate. Once the climate is altered there is only treatment for climate related health problems. In order to prevent these diseases and illnesses, we must work together to support public policy that works to slow climate change,” said D’Andrea.

And at the state level, Governor LePage has an opportunity to help clean the air and protect our health by doubling the strength of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the coming months.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is the best regional clean air and climate protection program in the country. This program limits dangerous pollution from power plants in Maine and across the region – helping to slow the warming of our planet. It also fuels investment in clean energy by making polluters pay to pollute. It has helped to clean our air over its first six years in operation.

“The best way to avoid health threats from poor air quality is to prevent them by strengthening policies like the Clean Air Act and programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative,” said D’Andrea.

“Governor LePage should work with other governors in the region to double the strength of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as soon as possible,” concluded Emma Rotner. “The more we cut pollution, the sooner dirty air days can become a thing of the past.”

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Environment Maine Research & Policy Center is a 501(c)(3) organization. We are dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit www.environmentMainecenter.org.