Jake Markoff

Staff Writer

When people think of Lancaster County, a bucolic picture with ideals of clean living likely sweeps their minds. However, in actuality, we have the lowest air quality in Pennsylvania.

Particulate matter and smog exist in our atmosphere at levels that can be detrimental to the health of residents. Several factors, both under and out of the control of Lancaster county are contributing to this problem. Agriculture, industry, and commerce– the pillars that give rise to modern civilization also give rise to harmful pollutants.

One of the great things about Lancaster is that residents can enjoy pastoral living while being relatively close to major population centers like Philly, Baltimore, New York, and Washington D.C. However, all of the traffic and all of the industry along the population corridors contribute approximately one-third of the airborne pollutants facing Lancaster. 

According to Dr. Richard Clark, the transport of these gases and particles is a major component of the pollution problem affecting the Lancaster region. In summer, as the Earth heats up throughout the day over the sloping terrain between the coastal zone and the Appalachian Mountains. Warmer air has lower air pressure than colder air, and the flow of air goes from high to low, generating winds from the south, southeast, and east that carry pollutants upslope and into this part of PA.   The Appalachians act as a barrier allowing the pollutants to build up along the piedmont, and under sunny conditions can “cook” (undergo photochemical processes) to form smog and high particle concentrations.

If you can picture a map of the east coast and make your way southeast, you would see the Atlantic Ocean, the northeast corridor that contains all of that industry and pollution, and eventually the Appalachians. The predominant wind direction during the day, especially in the summer is southeasterly, so all of those pollutants are being carried towards the mountains and getting trapped. What lies in between those pollutants and the mountains? Lancaster. 

The pollutants are oxides of nitrogen from vehicles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from industry (e.g. refineries) that can react in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. Lesser concentrations of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are also present, along with dust and particles, including microplastics.

Lancaster County is responsible for another third of the summertime pollutants on average. The agricultural industry in Lancaster is a major source of dust and other particles ejected into the air. Wood burning stoves, boilers, coal, and garbage burning are other sources of these potentially dangerous pollutants. Breathing in any of these particles isn’t great for your health, but the most dangerous are those designated PM 2.5. These particles are less than 2.5 microns wide and can make their way into your lungs where they can impede the flow of oxygen to the bloodstream.   

On-campus the department of sustainability is working to reduce carbon emissions and switch out our boiler-based heating for more environmentally friendly options. In greater Lancaster organizations like the Partnership for Public Health are actively monitoring and working on solutions for low air quality. In greater Lancaster organizations like the Partnership for Public Health are making the public aware when air quality is bad. The Department of Earth Sciences has active research programs funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA to study the factors leading to pollutant and particle exceedances. The problems are complex, and conservation is only a part of the solution. New and better technology is needed to remove pollutants at the source or eliminate the source. There are success stories such as the removal of Lead in the air by developing Lead-free gasoline or reducing sulfur dioxide by using scrubbers in stacks. 

In the meantime, keep a surgical mask around.