New report available: The air we breathe

A group of children standing outside, looking at the camera.

Minnesota’s air quality is generally good, meeting all federal standards. However, it is not the same in all parts of the state and doesn’t affect all Minnesotans equally.

That’s one of the messages in the MPCA’s newest biennial report to the Legislature on the state’s air quality, titled The Air We Breathe. Every two years, the report tracks trends in monitored air pollutants and highlights emerging issues in air quality. This year’s report has a particular focus on environmental justice.

Some groups of people can suffer health effects from pollution even though the air they breathe meets standards. For example, the elderly, children, and people with chronic heart and lung conditions are more vulnerable. (Another MPCA report, titled Life and Breath, found that air pollution was a factor in up to 4,000 deaths in the Twin Cities metropolitan area in 2013, the most recent data available when the findings were published in 2019.)

In addition to health and age characteristics, where people live is a determinant of the quality of the air they breathe. Historical policies designed to segregate Black, Indigenous, people of color, and low-income residents were effective in both urban and rural areas, with the result that these groups today tend to live in areas with higher levels of air pollution. The MPCA has identified these as areas of concern for environmental justice (EJ) and is dedicated to reducing disparities in air pollution exposure.

As previous reports have summarized, levels of primary air pollutants including lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide are, for the most part, decreasing or holding steady, although further reductions may be needed as standards become more protective over time.

The report also tracks emissions of mercury in Minnesota. As previous reports have noted, although we’ve cut mercury emissions power generation significantly, the state is not projected to meet the 2025 reduction goal of a statewide plan set in 2009. To meet that goal, significant reductions will still be needed from the taconite mining sector and mercury use in various products.