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Tackling Pollution in Maryland: How to Help

Pollution, or harmful substances in the environment, poses a threat to people, animals, and plants. As a Maryland resident, you can do your part to fight it and help keep the Chesapeake clean.
Overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Back in the 1960s, songwriter Tom Lehrer penned a satiric song called “Pollution.” Its tongue-in-cheek intro warns travelers to the United States, “Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.” Then it outlines the dangers they may face if they do, from “smog and sewage” to “industrial waste.”

Though penned before the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, as well as the formation of EPA, the well-known forms of pollution—harmful substances in the environment— focused on in the song have improved in the last sixty years. But all the hazards Lehrer names in the song are still present, and new ones have emerged. And they continue to threaten the health of plants and animals everywhere, including humans.

How much pollution is there in Maryland?

When it comes to pollution, Maryland is doing better than most U.S. states. According to a U.S. News analysis, the Old Line State is the 16th cleanest of the nation’s 50 states. However, pollution is still a big problem in specific areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

Water pollution  

Maryland’s water safety ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are a mixed bag. It’s mostly safe to swim near the seashore, and fish from most rivers and lakes are safe to eat. However, many of the state’s rivers contain trash and bacteria that make them unsuitable for swimming. Fish caught in Maryland’s bays often contain harmful chemicals. And less than half of the state’s waters can support healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Air pollution

Each year, the American Lung Association (ALA) publishes a report on U.S. air quality. It grades individual counties on their levels of ozone and fine particles, both of which cause lung damage. In Maryland, every county that can be rated gets at least a B for particle pollution. However, four counties out of 15 rated get failing scores for their ozone levels. While that’s not good, it’s a big improvement from past years, when most of the state exceeded ozone standards.

Land pollution 

One source of pollution on land is industrial toxins—harmful substances produced by industry. According to U.S. News, Maryland has about 564 pounds of these toxins for every square mile of its area. That sounds like a lot, but it’s far below the national average of 926 pounds.

Industrial pollution

What are the biggest causes of pollution in Maryland?

The biggest cause of air pollution in Maryland is fossil fuel use. Burning fossil fuels releases harmful chemicals like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and mercury. It also produces greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Air pollutants can drop out of the atmosphere and pollute the water as well. However, fossil fuels aren’t the only danger to Maryland’s water and soil. Chemicals from industry, agriculture, and cities pose a threat as well.

Tailpipe emissions

Exhaust from gas-burning vehicles is a major source of NO2, SO2, and greenhouse gases. NO2 is a lung irritant that also reacts with other chemicals to form ozone and particulates. The ALA notes that the risk of lung illness is higher for people who live near busy highways. In addition, both NO2 and SO2 mix with water to form acid rain, which damages buildings, plants, and ecosystems.

Fossil fuel power plants

Another major source of air pollution is power plants that burn fossil fuels. Their smokestacks emit NO2, greenhouse gases, and toxic mercury. These pollutants threaten water quality as well. Air pollution, mainly from power plants, is the biggest source of the mercury that taints the Bay’s fish. Coal-fired power plants are the worst offenders. Over 95 percent of power plant emissions in Maryland come from the largest and oldest coal-fired plants.

Industrial facilities

Like power plants, many industrial facilities emit mercury through their smokestacks. However, that’s far from the only way they pollute. Industrial plants can release a wide range of harmful chemicals, including:

  • PFAS, long-lasting “forever chemicals” linked to birth defects, cancer, and liver damage.
  • PCBs, toxic industrial compounds that were banned in 1977 but still persist in the environment.
  • Metals like lead, chromium, and zinc.
  • Organic compounds like benzene, naphthalene, and benzopyrene.


Chemicals used in agriculture are a major source of water pollution in Maryland. One major problem is excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from chemical fertilizers. This causes an overgrowth of algae, throwing aquatic ecosystems out of balance. About half of all nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake Bay comes from farms. Other agricultural chemicals that pollute the Bay include toxic pesticides and herbicides, such as atrazine.


Cities are responsible for the other half of nutrient pollution in the Bay. Some of this pollution is due to stormwater runoff. Rain and melted snow running through city streets pick up a wide variety of pollutants, including:

  • Dirt
  • Trash
  • Human and animal waste
  • Lawn and garden chemicals
  • Oil and other petroleum products
  • Road salt
  • Toxic metals such as zinc, lead, and copper

If runoff water doesn’t sink into the ground, it carries these pollutants into waterways. Cities can also contribute to water pollution through wastewater. This is water that’s been used for activities such as bathing or flushing toilets. Sewage treatment plants process this wastewater to remove harmful bacteria. However, they can’t always remove nutrients and chemicals from products we use at home, such as medicines, shampoo, and cosmetics.

How does pollution affect Maryland residents?

Pollution harms Maryland residents both directly and indirectly. Breathing polluted air contributes to many diseases, including asthma, lung cancer, heart attack, and stroke. Human and animal waste in water can spread germs. Other pollutants in water can cause cancer, birth defects, hormonal imbalances, and a wide range of other ailments.

The indirect effects of pollution are harder to see, but just as devastating. Pollutants in the water endanger fish and other aquatic life. They damage recreational areas. They can make the state’s water unsafe to drink and fish caught in that water unsafe to eat. And climate change caused by greenhouse gas pollution is already contributing to deadly heat waves, more severe storms, and sea level rise.

Filling a reusable water bottle with safe drinking water

Most and least polluted areas in Maryland

Four Maryland counties— Ann Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, and Prince George’s—get failing grades for ozone pollution from the ALA. Curiously, Baltimore City, which has a county to itself, has less ozone pollution, earning a C grade. However, it’s one of only three counties, along with Baltimore and Cecil, that doesn’t get an A grade for particulates. The only county that earns an A grade on both measures is rural Garret County.

The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which measures major releases of toxic chemicals, tells a similar story. The counties with the most toxic releases for 2021 were Ann Arundel, Baltimore, Baltimore City, and Prince George’s. Those with the fewest—just once each—were Calvert, Garret, Somerset, Talbot, and Worcester Counties.

Baltimore, Maryland

Pollution and environmental justice

In Maryland and many other states, the most polluted areas are usually those with the most low-income and minority residents. It’s not hard to see how this happens. No one wants polluters like waste dumps, power plants, or major highways in their area. However, people without power and money lack the resources to keep them out.

This makes pollution not just a health issue, but a social one too. Cleaning up pollution in Maryland is a matter of environmental justice—making sure environmental protections work for everyone.

What’s being done to clean up Maryland?

Government and nonprofits in Maryland are all working to make the Old Line State cleaner. Their recent efforts include: 

  • The Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act (GGRA). This 2009 law set a goal for Maryland to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2020. The state exceeded this goal, cutting emissions 30% from their 2006 levels. Now the government is drafting a new plan to cut emissions 60% by 2031.
  • The Maryland Healthy Air Act. Another 2009 law required coal-burning power plants to cut emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), SO2, and mercury. It also added Maryland to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a collaboration among Eastern states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Plan. Maryland is using an array of state laws and local efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. It has set limits on nutrient pollution, outlined plans to meet those targets, and established a system to track progress.
  • Smart Growth. Maryland nonprofits such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are working to promote smart growth. This type of development limits urban sprawl by using land more efficiently. Smart growth reduces pollution by making towns more compact and walkable, reducing the need for driving.
  • Community Solar Program. In 2015, Maryland created its first pilot program for community solar. This allows home and business owners to share the clean energy from a nearby solar farm.
Community solar farm

How you can contribute to a cleaner Maryland

Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a big job. To get it done, all Maryland residents need to do their part. That can include:

  • Disposing of waste responsibly. To keep trash out of the Bay, don’t litter. Prevent nutrient pollution by cleaning up pet waste and getting your septic system serviced yearly. And dispose of all hazardous waste properly, including medicines.
  • Making your yard eco-friendly. Use fertilizer sparingly in your lawn and garden. Reduce the paved area in your yard to limit runoff. Consider planting a rain garden or adding a rain barrel to capture more rainwater.
  • Driving less. Since air pollution leads to water pollution, you can help keep the Bay clean by driving less. Try alternatives like walking, biking, or carpooling. And consider making your next car an electric vehicle.
  • Being energy-conscious. Take simple steps to save energy at home, such as adjusting the thermostat and upgrading appliances. For your remaining power use, try signing up for community solar. It’s a super easy way to help and saves you money too.
  • Getting involved. Pollution isn’t a problem you can solve on your own. Take part in a clean-up with your local watershed group. And call and write to local, state, and federal government officials to push for more laws that protect the environment.

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