Minnesota’s Air Quality: It’s Nothing to Sneeze At!

If you’re in good health, it’s likely you don’t give much thought to the quality of the air you breathe in Minnesota. And for good reason: “Minnesota is ranked among areas with the best air quality across the country and the world,” reports the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) in its 2015 Air Quality Report to the Minnesota State Legislature. (1)

In fact, during the past two decades Minnesota has “reduced the level of unhealthy air pollutants across the state,” notes the same report. How has this happened? The MPCA credits “strong regulatory compliance, innovations in pollution control technology, voluntary emissions reductions programs and actions citizens have taken to reduce our individual contributions to air pollution where we live, work and play.”

Comparison of Growth Areas and Emissions in Minnesota

Graph Percentage Change

Source: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (2)

While great news, we should not breathe a sigh of collective relief just yet.

It appears that for some people, no amount of air pollutants is safe. This includes the very young, elderly, and those who suffer from respiratory illnesses and heart problems. Given these considerations, it’s not surprising that the MPCA reports, “Advancing science shows that current levels of air pollution are impacting the health of some Minnesotans today.”

What’s more, as federal standards get more restrictive, the MPCA predicts that Minnesota “becomes less likely to meet the revised standards.”

Why does this matter?

The Minnesota Department of Health notes on its website that, “Air pollution is associated with a variety of harmful respiratory and cardiovascular effects, including asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and heart attacks. The severity of these effects varies depending on the type of the pollutant, level of exposure, and individual susceptibility.” (3)

Air pollution also negatively impacts the life quality of all Minnesotans as hazy air degrades scenic views in our state’s most beautiful outdoor areas. It also can cause our lakes and streams to absorb mercury, which settles into the bodies of the fish we love to catch and eat. Perhaps most scary of all, “emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, contribute to climate change, which will cause significant changes to Minnesota’s ecosystems in the years to come.” (4)

One recent example: In July, the effects of climate change affected nearly all Minnesotans when prolonged drought and Canadian wildfires triggered some of the highest pollution levels in almost a decade in parts of Minnesota. (5) A news story in the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune cited CBS News reports that “dry, hot weather and unusually thin snowpack from last winter contributed to more than 110 forest fires in the province of Saskatchewan alone.” (6)

What Constitutes “Air Pollution”?

The Minnesota Department of Health cites ozone and fine particles (also known as PM2.5) in outdoor air as the primary causes of poor air quality in much of the U.S, including Minnesota.

“PM2.5 is a mixture of small particles and liquid droplets smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. PM2.5 is released when coal, gasoline, diesel fuels, wood, and other fuels are burned. PM2.5 also is created by chemical reactions between other pollutants in the air.

“Additionally, PM2.5 is released by tobacco smoke and home heating sources, such as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. Depending on these activities and home environment characteristics (e.g. air ventilation), PM2.5 indoor exposures may be higher than outdoors.” (7)

What can you do to reduce your exposure to air pollution?

While many air quality factors seem to be beyond the control of any one individual, the Minnesota Department of Health offers the following recommendations:

  • Be aware of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Air Quality Index (AQI) alerts and advisories in your area. (8) (Note: Many news organizations, including the Star Tribune’s weather page and the Paul Douglas weather blog report on daily air quality and UV index levels).
  • Avoid exposure to tobacco smoke, wood smoke, vehicle exhaust, and other sources of PM2.5 when possible.
  • Avoid prolonged outdoor physical activity on air quality alert or advisory days and near high-traffic areas.
  • On high ozone concentration days, plan a physical activity for the morning hours when ozone concentrations are lowest or move activities to an air-conditioned, indoor area.
  • Take action to reduce PM2.5 and ozone levels in your community.
  • Learn more about your home’s indoor air quality and ways to minimize indoor air pollution.

Consider Our Sources:

(1-2, 4) Air Quality in Minnesota: Biennial report to the Legislature, January 2015. Retrieved October 22, 2015. 

(3, 7) Minnesota Department of Health: Air Quality. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

(5) Ford, M. (2015, August 22). The West’s Wildfire Season Gets WorseThe Atlantic. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

(6) Smith, M. L. (2015, July 6). Air pollution warnings expanded in Minnesota due to smoke from Canadian wildfiresStar Tribune. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

(8) Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: Current Air Quality Index. Retrieved October 22, 2015.

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