Who is at risk from air pollution?

People’s health risk from air pollution varies widely depending on age, where they live, their underlying health, and other factors. Many studies show that people with lower socio-economic status and minority populations are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and are more vulnerable to adverse health impacts. Data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show disparities in heart and lung disease by age, race/ethnicity, income level, and geography.

Populations most at risk of health problems related to air pollution:

  • People with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Infants and young children
  • People who work or exercise outdoors
  • Adults over 65
  • People with a cardiovascular disease
  • People in poverty; people who lack access to health care
  • People who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke
  • People working in occupations where there is high exposure to contaminated air
  • People who spend a lot of time near busy roadways

Air quality in Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area currently meets standards, but even low and moderate levels of air pollution can contribute to serious health effects and early death for these groups.

Air pollution and health in the Twin Cities

The 2015 report Life and breath: How air pollution affects public health in the Twin Cities analyzed air quality data for 2008 from the MPCA and MDH to estimate the effects of air pollution on health outcomes for people in the seven-county metro area by ZIP code. The study found that:

  • About 6-13% of all metro residents who died during the study period, and about 2-5% of those who visited the hospital or emergency room for heart and lung problems, did so partly because of exposure to fine particles in the air or ground-level ozone.
  • Air pollution doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. The groups most affected by air pollution are people of color, elderly residents, children with uncontrolled asthma, and people living in poverty. Vulnerable populations may experience more health effects because these populations already have higher rates of heart and lung conditions.

The risks of living near traffic

Studies have shown that people who live, work, or attend school near major roadways have an increased incidence and severity of health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, low birth weight, pre-term newborns, reduced lung function and impaired lung development in children, and premature death.

Areas within 1,000 to 1,600 feet from highways and other major roads are most impacted by traffic-related pollution. An estimated 30% to 45% of people in large North American cities live within such zones. The MDH Public Health Data Access portal provides traffic exposure estimates for every Minnesota census tract, zip code and county.

About 10-15% of passenger vehicles — older, dirtier vehicles — are responsible for more than half of fine particle emissions from on-road vehicles. Identifying and repairing or retiring these high-polluting vehicles has positive impacts on both local and regional air quality.

Asthma in Minnesota

Asthma is a chronic disease that can be affected by air pollution. In Minnesota, disparities in asthma rates exist based on where you live and by gender, age and race/ethnicity. For instance, American Indian, black, African, and African American children experience higher rates of asthma than their peers of other races/ethnicities.  For more information, see the following topics on the Minnesota Department of Health website: