Alexandria recently asked me to look into what the Mirant plant has been doing to the health of its residents. Until I began sifting through air-sampling reports from the Potomac River plant, I hadn't realized what a mess Washington had in its own back yard.

Air quality samples taken over a year-long period revealed 33,000 violations of the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for acceptable levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. This is egregious, given the harsh and rapid effects sulfur dioxide has on people's health.

Some of the power plant's soot is big and lands on the window sills of the neighboring residences, as Melanie Scarborough claimed in her Aug. 28 Close to Home piece. But lots of small particles that are emitted also bypass the nose and throat and land deep in the lungs. For those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, such as emphysema or chronic bronchitis, a slight decrease in lung function can mean the difference between being able to eat a meal or just sitting there gasping. People with heart disease also are more likely to die when they breathe such emissions.

The Mirant plant wasn't just releasing intermittent, accidental puffs of smoke on a rare bad day. It was emitting lots of bad stuff often. Alexandria is on the right course -- this plant does not make sense anymore.

-- Rebecca Bascom

a professor of medicine at

the Pennsylvania State College of

Medicine, Division of Pulmonary,

Allergy and Critical Care, is advising

Alexandria on public health issues

related to the Mirant power plant.