Life and Breath report

It's true: Air pollution is bad for our health. 

It used to be hard to tell exactly how bad air pollution is for people living in Minnesota, but now we have a better idea. Scientists from the MPCA and the Department of Health (MDH) have taken an in-depth look at how air pollution impacts people throughout the entire state at a county level in a new report.

Life and Breath: How air pollution affects public health in Minnesota (2019) is an expansion of the 2015 report that covered the seven-county metro area, broken down by ZIP code.

PDF icon Life and Breath 2019 (aq1-64)


Dig into the dataScreenshot of the online health portal tool from Minnesota Department of Health

Check out the Minnesota Department of Health portal on the health impacts of air pollution.

Use the interactive tools to see how air pollution in your area is impacting public health, with breakdowns by poverty and uninsured rates, age, and more. 

What do we know? 

While air quality in Minnesota is currently good and meets federal standards, even low and moderate levels of air pollution can contribute to serious illnesses and early death. The report estimates the health impacts using the most current outdoor air quality data available (from 2013), matched with available death records, and hospital and emergency department admission data.

MPCA and MDH scientists found that in 2013 across Minnesota:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of all residents who died, and 1 to 5 percent of all residents who visited the hospital or emergency room for heart and lung problems, did so partly because of fine particles in the air or ground-level ozone. 
  • This is roughly 2,000 to 4,000 deaths, 500 additional hospital stays, and 800 emergency room visits. 

Young child with inhalerMinnesota’s most vulnerable populations are hurting

The groups most impacted by air pollution in Minnesota:

  • Elderly people
  • People living in poverty
  • People with pre-existing heart or lung conditions
  • Children with uncontrolled asthma
  • People without health insurance 

These populations may experience more health effects because they already have higher rates of heart and lung conditions. These groups also experience more hospitalizations, emergency-room visits for asthma, and death related to air pollution. Structural inequities, like income, racial discrimination, transportation patterns, community social status, education, and housing are major contributors to how health is affected by air pollution.

Air pollution affecting health isn’t just a big city or metro issue

There are small differences in annual average air pollution levels across Minnesota counties. However, higher levels of ozone pollution are found in the southern region of the state, while fine particle levels are highest in the metro and parts of southeast Minnesota. Communities and regions with the greatest burden from air pollution include senior populations in the metro, central, and southeast parts of Minnesota.

Where is the air pollution coming from? 

Minnesota residents who died, or those who visited the hospital or emergency room for heart and lung problems, did so because fine particles or ground-level ozone (the two air pollutants with the most potential for direct harm to people's health) made their conditions worse. Ground-level ozone is formed through chemical reactions of other molecules already in the air, specifically nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

How can we all do better? 

If we reduce 2013 levels of fine particles and ground-level ozone by ten percent—roughly equal to the air quality improvements seen in the past decade—the following adverse health events could be prevented: 

  • 200 to 500 early deaths 
  • 70 hospitalizations 
  • 150 emergency department visits

Bottom line: air pollution is everyone's problem 

Air quality has improved since 2008, but we don’t yet know whether health outcomes have also improved for Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents. The most important thing to remember is that every Minnesotan can do something to help improve our air quality.

Some of the things you can do to improve air quality are:

  • Drive the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can afford.
  • Take public transportation, walk, or bike whenever possible.
  • Limit wood-burning activities like backyard bonfires.
  • Look for alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning small engines such as electric lawnmowers and weed trimmers rather than those that use gas.

Visit our Why you should care page to learn more about how air pollution impacts your health and simple things you can do to protect yourself and loved ones and improve Minnesota's air quality.