Life and Breath report

Collage of Minneapolis skyline, people, a truck idlingWe all know air pollution can be bad for our health. Until recently, it would have been hard to say exactly how bad air pollution is for people living in the Twin Cities metro. Now, we have a better idea. Scientists from the MPCA and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) worked together to take an in-depth look at air quality and estimate the impact of air pollution on public health.

The report, “Life and Breath: How air pollution affects public health in the Twin Cities,” analyzed air quality data from the MPCA and health data from MDH to estimate effects of air pollution on health outcomes for people living in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Scientists used baseline data from 2008 to estimate health impacts of air pollution. The report used data from 2008 because that was the most recent data available which allowed for linking of air pollution levels and health outcomes.

What 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. Air pollution contributed to about 2,000 deaths, 400 hospitalizations, and 600 emergency-room visits in the Twin Cities in 2008.

The report estimates that in 2008, about 6 to 13% of all residents in the Twin Cities metro area who died, and about 2 to 5% 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.

We also know that 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. They experience more hospitalizations, emergency-room visits for asthma, and death related to air pollution.

How do we know?

To estimate health impacts related to air pollution, the agencies looked at air quality data and health outcomes data by ZIP codes in the Twin Cities metro area. They then used mathematical modeling software to determine what portion of disease was due to pollution. The report found little difference in average air pollution levels across ZIP codes.

The report does not address the exposure of a particular individual, nor does it address health impacts related to higher or lower exposures within ZIP codes or variations over time.

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.