Minneapolis, Minn. — Everyone knows air pollution is bad for your health. Until recently, it would have been hard to say exactly how bad. Now, scientists have estimated the impact of air pollution on human lives in the Twin Cities.
A new report says that air pollution contributed to about 2,000 deaths, 400 hospitalizations, and 600 emergency-room visits in the Twin Cities in 2008.
The report, “Life and Breath: How Air Pollution in the Twin Cities Affects Public Health” is being jointly released today the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The report analyzed MPCA air quality data and health data from the MDH to estimate the effects of air pollution on health outcomes for people living in the seven-county 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.
“This report helps us see much more clearly than we could before just who is affected by air pollution, how serious the effects are and where we have health disparities that need to be addressed,” said MDH Commissioner Ed Ehlinger. “This report gives us a baseline by which we can measure the health impacts of future reductions in air pollution.”
Breathing polluted air can cause a variety of health problems. 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 that in 2008, about six to 13 percent of all residents in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area who died, and about two to five percent 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.
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.
“We can’t control Canadian wild fires or who is burning coal around the world,” says MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. “We can look at our own choices every day. We can choose the most fuel efficient transportation we can afford or use mass transit. Small steps really do add up. Air pollution is a day-in-day-out cumulative problem; we can all make a positive impact with the daily choices we all make.”
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. People in ZIP codes with more people of color and residents in poverty show more public health effects from air pollution, primarily 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. “Places that have more elderly people with heart and lung conditions and children with uncontrolled asthma are places where air pollution has a greater impact,” said Ehlinger.
The commissioners say newer data from 2014 suggest that air quality has improved since 2008, but whether health outcomes also have improved is not yet known. Scientists say it may be possible to update the study in the near future.
The report is available on a new multiagency website called BeAirAwareMN.org, designed to provide information on air quality and how people can better help protect their health and the environment.