What if I told you that my grandmother is 92 years old? What if I told you that my grandmother lives in Baltimore, Maryland — one of the 10 cities with the worst air quality in the nation? What if I told you that my grandmother does not suffer from asthma, nor does she have any respiratory problems? Would you believe me?
Baltimore, Maryland has been a special place in my family for as long as I can remember. My father was born and raised in the very house that my grandmother lives in today, and, as a young adult, my mother moved to Baltimore where she eventually met my father. Living just 20 minutes outside of the city allowed me to spend much of my childhood attending a few Baltimore Ravens football games, enjoying crab feasts on the water of the Inner Harbor, and visiting the Baltimore Aquarium time and time again.
When I look back on my childhood and remember my frequent visits to my grandparents house in northeast Baltimore, it is interesting to compare the innocent perspective of a child to my newfound perspective of a young adult. As a child, I’d sit in the back seat of our Honda Odyssey driving on 95 north — Dad in the driver seat, Mom in the passenger seat, and my older sister right by my side. Entering Baltimore from the suburbs of Howard County, Baltimore was always so fascinating to me. With my forehead against the glass and my eyes glued to the window, I would marvel at the sight of a large “chimney-like” object off of the highway (with purple vertical lettering that said “Baltimore”) and the Baltimore Ravens’ Stadium illuminated with purple lights in the distance of the skyline. This may have been because my favorite color has always been purple or because these structures were so large and industrial. To me, seeing these structures meant we were in Baltimore and therefore closer to my grandparents’ house.
Now, I know that this “chimney-like” object, officially called the Wheelabrator Smokestack and just 20 minutes from my grandmother’s house, has powerful and deadly implications. Not only is it one of the city’s largest air polluters, but it is also the 10th largest trash incinerator in the country. According to 2014 EPA data, Wheelabrator emits more nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and hydrochloric acid than any other source in the city. The health effects of these substances include asthma attacks, increase in lifetime risk of chronic respiratory disease and stroke, and damage to lungs along with many others. When I was younger I would think to myself, “Humans made all of this?” in amazement. As a young adult, I ask myself the same question but rather with a sense of utter shock and disbelief.
The fact that my grandmother is incredibly healthy and does not suffer from any serious respiratory problems while living in Baltimore is rare. She is the exception. In addition to respiratory issues that smog and particulates can create, these pollutants are also correlated with brain health and neurological disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. As I grow older, I worry about the health of my grandmother more and more. Every day with unclean air is one day too many. This dirty energy is not worth the risk of irreversible health impacts.
While my grandmother lives just 20 minutes away from the city’s biggest polluter, there are many other communities that are much closer and cannot escape its effects. Many of these communities are majority people of color who are disproportionately affected by the locations of polluting facilities and are at higher risk for health problems simply due to where they live. These polluting facilities are systematically placed in low income communities or communities or color, which creates generational health problems for already marginalized communities. This is what injustice looks like — everyone deserves clean air, no matter where they live.
Luckily, Baltimore recently took action against these polluters. In February of 2019, the city council unanimously passed the Baltimore Clean Air Act, and the mayor signed it into law just a month later. The two largest waste incinerators, both within 20 minutes of my grandmother’s house, will be forced to meet lower emission standards or face closure. Earlier this year the state of Maryland also had a win in the necessary movement to clean energy. With bipartisan support, the Clean Energy Jobs Act was approved by the Maryland General Assembly, which mandates 50% renewable energy by 2030 and will create 20,000 solar energy jobs.
As daunting as it may be to reflect on the consequences of air pollution in a city very close to my heart, it is extremely exciting to finally see action at the local and state level. In the absence of federal leadership under the current administration, this local action is more important than ever. I envision a future where my grandmother and her remarkable health at the age of 92 is not the exception but the norm. Clean air is essential for all of us. We caused these problems, so it is up to us to fix them. I am hopeful that we can, and will, before it is too late.