Report: Air pollution contributes to health inequities 


According to state agencies, communities facing structural inequities across Minnesota face greater health impacts from air pollution, even as overall air quality in Minnesota has improved.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) recently released the two-part report, “Life and Breath,” examining how air pollution affected health in 2015 in the Twin Cities metro area and three Greater Minnesota cities (Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud). It updates earlier reports from 2019 and 2015.

Pollution decreased between 2008 and 2015 in the Twin Cities—fine particles (PM2.5) pollution improved by 30% and ozone pollution by nearly 10% —yet it is still a cause for concern. 

Researchers estimated air pollution played a part in 10% of all Twin Cities deaths and between 8-10% of deaths in Greater Minnesota in 2015. This is higher than the number of deaths caused by accidents, which make up 6% of all deaths.

Air pollutants were also behind nearly 500 hospitalizations and emergency room visits for heart and lung conditions in the metro. Minnesota meets current federal standards for air quality according to the report, but changing environmental conditions raise concerns, like smoke exposure from wildfires that sparked record-setting air quality alerts last summer.

Even as overall estimated deaths attributed to air pollution decreased, the reports noted a concentration of higher rates of death and disease related to air pollution in communities with more residents who are low-income, uninsured, people of color, or people with a disability.

“For example, zip codes with the largest percentage of BIPOC residents had more than five times the rate of asthma emergency room visits related to air pollution compared to areas with more White residents,” the report reads.

“We know that air quality and health are closely linked,” said Craig McDonnell, MPCA assistant commissioner for air and climate policy. “To see these negative health effects persist in our state’s largest population centers underlines just how important the issue of air quality is, especially for those Minnesotans who are disproportionately affected by pollution.”

Many historical factors, such as proximity to highways and industry due to systemic racism, continue to influence local air quality. Other factors that shape health and amplify impacts from air pollution include access to quality health care and green spaces, affordable housing, and education.

Researchers say these factors are compounded by economic stressors and in turn “lead to higher levels of heart and lung disease that make residents in marginalized communities more susceptible to the effects of poor air quality.”

State agencies wanted to add to the body of evidence around how marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted. “The burden of air pollution falls heavier on some communities within our cities than on others, contributing to preventable deaths and worsening heart and lung disease,” said Dr. Brooke Cunningham, assistant commissioner of MDH’s Health Equity Bureau. 

“It seems like we all breathe the same quality air. The differences are not always visible. Those ‘invisibilities’ are why it’s so hard to tackle the structural causes of health inequities. This report provides crucial information to move forward toward a healthier Minnesota for all.”

The MPCA and MDH say they will use these reports, as well as other analyses and sources, to inform efforts to reduce pollution and address health inequities. 

Look for the MSR’s ongoing coverage of environmental issues in upcoming editions.