Decades of data demonstrate that exclusionary housing policies have pushed people into neighborhoods where polluting facilities such as power plants hurt their health. Among other pollutants, fossil fuel power plants emit nitrogen oxides, which can make it harder to breathe in the short term or trigger an asthma attack, while increasing the risk of respiratory infections or exacerbating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other ailments.
Thanks to the efforts of local communities and clean-energy advocates, Maryland policymakers have made significant progress lowering local pollution from power plants. Yet poor air continues to plague our communities, in part because of a hidden source of NOx pollution — systems and equipment that function as mini-power plants and burn fossil fuels in our homes.
As with pollution from electric power plants operated by utilities, the burden of Maryland’s fossil fuel equipment isn’t felt equally. People of color are exposed to 60% more residential gas equipment pollution than white people, according to a report about how to address the health toll caused by pollution from the state’s homes and businesses.
We don’t have to live with this pollution. Air quality standards for heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and water heaters could help eliminate these pollutants in our homes and the air we breathe outdoors, while also helping to stabilize energy bills. That’s because the most efficient technologies on the market to heat and cool our homes and water — heat pumps and heat pump hot water heaters — also produce zero on-site pollution. They are a win-win-win for the climate, healthy air and for our wallets.
Heat pumps provide both heating and cooling and are two to four times more efficient than gas furnaces and even use 29% less electricity than the best-performing central AC units, immediately lowering energy use and stabilizing utility bills. If all Maryland households transitioned from fossil fuel in their heating, ventilation and cooling systems and water heaters to highly efficient heat pumps, it would remove nearly as much NOx as taking half the state’s diesel vehicles off the road.
Healthy air standards for HVACs and water heaters could help supercharge the market for pollution-free equipment, lowering overall costs. And thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, low- and moderate-income households will have additional support to purchase such equipment. By pursuing a suite of equity-based policies to ensure that these healthier machines are available to all, Gov. Wes Moore and our state policymakers can help everyone breathe easier, while gaining access to superior heating and cooling choices.
For more than 30 years, Baltimore residents have lived under the shadow of ozone pollution far beyond what’s considered healthy under the Clean Air Act. Pursuing air quality standards for HVACs and water heaters can help Baltimore finally meet and maintain federal ozone standards, while making a major dent in the 13% of climate-warming pollution that comes from Maryland’s buildings.
It’s clear that Maryland leaders understand the value of such policies. The Department of the Environment noted in the 2023 Maryland Climate Pathway report that such standards are “critical, not only to achieving environmental goals but to create healthier homes,” and Moore recently committed to exploring such rules as part of a larger commitment by governors across the country to quadruple heat pump installations in 25 states by the end of the decade.
While we can’t see the pollution emerging from HVACs and water heaters in our apartments and houses, we’re finally opening our eyes to how this equipment harms our health. Setting healthy air standards for this equipment can dramatically improve the lives and health of Maryland residents — particularly those most vulnerable. It’s time to clean up our air and invest in healthier homes by pursuing air standards for HVACs and water heaters in Maryland.
Panagis Galiatsatos, M.D., M.H.S., is an associate professor and a physician in pulmonary medicine at Johns Hopkins.
Ruth Ann Norton is president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.