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List of State Officials - Robert (Bob) L. Ehrlich Jr, Governor; Michael S. Steele, Lt. Governor; Kendl P. Philbrick, MDE Secretary 

Volume II, Number 9

 February 2007

eMDE is a monthly publication of the Maryland Department of the Environment. It covers articles on current environmental issues and events in the state. 

Code Red Kills Green: MDE Ozoners Visit Penn State’s Air Quality Learning and Demonstration Center

By Bob Maddox, Air and Radiation Administration

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Sign at Penn 

Penn's bio-indicator garden 

Group at Penn 

Back to this issue's cover page 

Viewed mostly as a regulatory and emergency response agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has an increasing role as a teaching and learning resource. MDE has long participated at public venues, such as the Maryland State Fair and the Tour du Sol (an organization that promotes alternative fuel vehicles,) to promote environmental awareness. The MDE often hosts delegations from other countries to describe Maryland’s regulatory programs and provide technical assistance in controlling pollution. MDE employees frequently visit schools and partner with other entities to teach students about recycling, reducing pollution and improving their communities.

MDE is now looking to expand its role as a teaching and learning resource. “We are an agency that is innovative in developing important environmental approaches and even outreach products, such as air quality forecasting,” said MDE secretary Kendl P. Philbrick. “We find that tapping the resources of other institutions can be helpful in advancing our education materials.”

Finding the Keystone to Ozone FX

On a recent crisp November day, four MDE employees from the Air and Radiation Management Administration and the Office of the Secretary visited Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). The purposes of the visit was first, to talk with Dr. Dennis R. Decoteau, Professor of Horticulture and Plant Ecosystem Health and learn about his research on air pollution and to look at Penn State’s Air Quality Learning and Demonstration Center. Second, MDE wants to assess if a similar learning center can be built and used in Maryland to help students and citizens gain a better understanding of the environmental impairments caused by air pollution.

Penn State’s Departments of Horticulture and Plant Pathology conduct research on air pollution’s effects on vegetation, most notably on plants and trees common to Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic states. The research is conducted in greenhouses on Penn State’s main campus and at a bio-indicator garden at the Air Quality Learning and Demonstration Center at the Penn State Arboretum in the adjacent township of State College.

Native Plants: Good Bio-Indicator for Bad Air

Since MDE’s primary interest is to learn about the Air Quality and Demonstration Center and determine how a similar project could be replicated for teaching and demonstration purposes in Maryland, most of the visit was spent at the outdoor facility. The plan for the learning and demonstration center is simple: Create a bio-indicator garden using native plants and see whether, and how, the plants are affected by concentrations of a pollutant or pollutant mixture. 

Penn State encountered some complications as they developed and built the setting. The half-acre garden and learning center, surrounded by a split-rail fence, was planted and built around an existing air quality monitoring station with full instrumentation run by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. The air monitoring station is coupled with weather data equipment and a visibility camera pointed toward Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Nittany Mountain. This is a beneficial setup for the bio-indicator garden and learning center, as actual pollutant, weather and visibility data can be easily compared with plant-effect observations, due to the closeness in proximity to the monitoring station.

Sweeping Vista

“The location of the air monitoring station is at an elevation of 1800 to 1900 feet,” explained Jim Savage, a Penn State horticulturalist who helped guide the tour. “This is a specified elevation for measuring particulates and provides a good vista for the visibility camera.”

Seeing Red

“All the plants are native to the region and are ozone sensitive,” Savage continued. “The plants we monitor will show distinct ozone injury symptoms, from stippling on leaves to defoliation. The rumex plant is a good bio-indicator. Its leaves become red from ozone exposure.”

Plants used at the garden include common milkweed, blackberry, black cherry, trumpet creeper, bounty peaches, chambourcin and vidal grapes, tobacco and rumex. Some plants are enclosed in either carbon-filtered or non-filtered transparent chambers to show how plants respond to carbon-filtered air of reduced ozone compared to plants exposed to a full concentration of ozone in ambient air. There are also other plants studied in the garden that are sensitive to other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

“The chambers are also equipped with cameras, taking time-lapsed shots of the plants,” says Dr. Decoteau. “We can actually see when the plants in the unfiltered chambers begin to show ozone injury symptoms.”

The learning center has a large, open teaching pavilion equipped with benches, tables and internet access that accommodates 50 people. The pavilion can be darkened with shade cloth in order to have presentations projected onscreen.

The general objective of the learning center is to improve knowledge about the effects of air pollution on terrestrial ecosystems. A primary audience is kindergarten through grade 12 science teachers by providing in-service training workshops and a three-credit, three-week summer course. This benefits teachers who are required to satisfy professional development requirements and enhance science curriculums. To help teachers enroll for the three-credit summer course, Penn State defrays tuition costs for them and offers competitive scholarships. Other audiences are employees with the Farm Bureau, faculty and students with the Governor’s School for Agricultural Sciences, high school science students, and adults in continuing education classes.

Groundhogs, Deer, and Bear…Oh My!

As for the complications regarding the location, the garden and learning center is in a somewhat remote location with no running water, making it difficult to have people there for long periods. There were some constraints in putting up signage to meet State College township requirements. And there is wildlife in the area – groundhogs, deer, and even a bear – that are partial to the garden’s plants.

On Penn State’s University Park campus is a complex of greenhouses and buildings used for additional research on plants and air pollution. Inside the greenhouses is an impressive array of overhead pipes, cameras and fans. Large cylindrical transparent chambers for plants are spaced throughout the greenhouses, connected to ducts and ozone generators. There are sheds inside the greenhouses containing and protecting computers and measuring equipment. Plants are exposed to controlled amounts of pollutants to determine the effects on plant health.

The MDE team came away very impressed with Penn State’s research on air pollution and plant health, and were especially impressed with their dedication to knowledge-sharing. 


©2007 Copyright MDE

Editorial Board
Maryland Department of the Environment
1800 Washington Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21230