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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Government and nonprofits in Maryland are all working to make the Old Line State cleaner. Their recent efforts include:
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay is a big job. To get it done, all Maryland residents need to do their part. That can include: