Air quality and you: Health effects of air pollution


Air pollution is a mixture of many different gases and particles from man-made sources that include vehicle exhaust, smoke, road dust, and industrial emissions, as well as pollen.

Both short-term and long-term exposure to air pollutants can cause a variety of health problems. For people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD - also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis), air pollution can make it harder to breathe, trigger asthma attacks, or cause wheezing and coughing.

Air pollution also increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, and more severely affects people who are already ill. Children, the elderly, and people in low-income neighborhoods experience disproportionate health effects from air pollution. In Minnesota there are significant disparities in asthma prevalence by race/ethnicity. And there are striking geographic disparities. For instance, the asthma hospitalization rate among Twin Cities children is more than 50% higher than among children living in Greater Minnesota, indicating they are more susceptible to air pollution effects.

Some air pollutants - such as mercury in fish and dioxins in meat and dairy products - settle out of the air and get in our food, water, and soils.

Find out how you can reduce air pollution where you live and work. Small, local sources like vehicles and lawn mowers combine to emit more air pollution than all the industrial sources in the state combined. Simple everyday actions can help prevent and reduce that impact.

Things that affect your exposure to outdoor air pollution

On any given day, the types and amount of pollution we breathe vary by our location, the time of day, and even the weather.

Proximity: Air pollution levels are higher the closer you are to an emissions source. For most of us, our highest exposure to air pollution occurs near busy roadways. But it could be a burn barrel or backyard fire pit, too.

Time and season: Fine particle levels are often highest in the morning, but can be elevated at any time of day. Ozone is a summertime pollutant. Ozone levels are highest in the afternoon and evening.

Temperature: Fine particle levels often increase during unseasonably warm winter days. Most unhealthy ozone days occur when daytime high temperatures exceed 90°F.

Weather: Minnesota’s weather patterns usually help keep air pollution below unhealthy levels, but on days with fog, light or no wind, or temperature inversions, weather conditions can allow pollution to build to unhealthy levels.


We tend to think of air pollution as something outside, but the air inside homes, offices, and other buildings can be more polluted than outdoor air.

Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations. Moreover, people who are most susceptible to the effects of pollution (e.g., the very young, older adults, people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease) tend to spend even more time indoors.

Common indoor air pollutants include radon, smoke, and lead dust. Carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace, mold from damp walls, or volatile organic compounds from a newly painted room also contaminate indoor air. And pollutants such as fine particles from candles or fireplaces (or from the outdoors) also affect our health.

Biological pollutants, such as mold, pollen, animal dander, dust mites, and cockroaches, may trigger breathing problems, allergic symptoms, or asthma attacks. Tobacco smoke contains some 200 known poisons, such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, and at least 60 chemicals known to cause cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

For details on common indoor air pollutants, asthma, indoor air quality in schools, and more, visit Minnesota Department of Health’s Air Quality topics page.

3 easy ways to protect your health

Be air aware. Know when air quality is unhealthy.
Check out the MPCA Air Quality Index and sign up for air quality forecasts and alerts. Call the AQI information line (651-297-1630). Download the MN Air AQI mobile app for Android, Apple, or Windows.
Protect yourself while driving.
When in traffic, close your windows and set your ventilation system to recirculate the air to avoid breathing vehicle exhaust. Choose driving routes that are less traveled, especially by diesel vehicles.
Avoid exposure to pollutants.
Keep away from wood smoke, vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke and other sources of airborne particles, where possible. Avoid prolonged outdoor exertion near busy roadways or on days when the air quality is poor.