Cassandra Holmes, vice president of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, still doesn’t know why her oldest son died.
At the age of 16, he suddenly had heart problems. “One day, he didn’t feel good,” Holmes said. “He had to get a heart transplant, and he was not able to survive.”
Unexpected deaths are a familiar story in East Phillips, a neighborhood in south Minneapolis where 80% of residents are people of color and almost half of all households make under $35,000 a year. Historically redlined, East Phillips is also polluted, from arsenic in the ground to smoke in the air.
That pollution is what Holmes believes led to the death of her son and others. “What else could it be when we have kids dying from asthma attacks,” she said.
New reports from Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency and Department of Health lend credence to Holmes’ conclusion. Analyzing air pollution and health data from 2015, the agencies found that neighborhoods with mostly residents of color had five times the rate of asthma emergency room visits as majority white areas.
“People living near high-traffic roads and heavy industry often have more exposure to air pollution than those who live, work and gather in less-polluted areas,” notes the report that focused on pollution in the Twin Cities. “This unequal air pollution burden, together with higher underlying rates of lung, heart and other health conditions among communities with more pollution exposure, can lead to disparate health outcomes.”
Across the state, air pollution contributed to more deaths than accidents, which were the third-leading causes of death in 2015.
But the reports, titled Life and Breath, don’t take into account recent developments likely to make air pollution and its health effects even worse, especially in areas like East Phillips, including wildfire smoke and COVID-19, both of which damage the lungs.
They “certainly will drive more of the health disparities that we already see,” said Kathy Raleigh, an epidemiologist at MDH and a co-author of the Life and Breath reports. Pollution and health trends are “not going in the right direction.”
That can change, experts say, if more is done to address pollution emitters — which span not just power plants and cars, but also overlooked sources like road dust, agriculture and lawn mowers. And while regulating pollution is a state and federal responsibility, individuals can still make an impact and help reduce deaths. “It’s a larger systemic problem,” Raleigh said. But “there are individual things we can do. We don’t want people to feel helpless.”
Pollution in Minnesota
In Minnesota, air pollution has been decreasing for decades, and the state meets the federal EPA standards for good air quality. But standards can be misleading. There are no “safe thresholds of air pollution…below which there are no health risks,” said David Bael, an environmental economic analyst at the MPCA and a co-author of the Life and Breath reports.
Reports like Life and Breath focus on the outdoor effects of two pollutants: PM 2.5, which are small particles like dust or smoke, and ozone, a gas. But there are other pollutants, like mercury, that damage the lungs when breathed in, and deadly pollution can also happen indoors.
Pollutants come from a wide variety of places and industries. “There’s this gap in public perception between the sources that people think cause air quality-related deaths, i.e. tailpipes and smokestacks, and what we find to be the sources that [account for] the majority of deaths,” said Dr. Sumil Thakrar, an air quality researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Thakrar’s research shows that over 100,000 deaths in the U.S. every year can be attributed to air pollution. And while much of that pollution comes from burning fossil fuels for energy, heating and vehicles, roughly half of those deaths have nothing to do with fossil fuels.
Dust from roads alone is associated with around 5,000 deaths annually, Thakrar found. And ammonia from fertilizers, which forms PM 2.5 when released into the atmosphere, means the food and agriculture industry contributes to more air pollution deaths than power plants.
In part, that’s because existing regulations have done a good job reducing pollution from energy production and cars, Thakrar said, exposing other emitters that haven’t been scrutinized as much.
“As we continue to reduce pollution…smaller sources become relatively more important” to regulate, he said. Especially in denser urban areas, like cities, “reducing the impacts from some of these smaller sources might well have an outsized impact.”
“People know it’s bad”
Minnesota is making progress on reducing air pollution. The state’s Clean Cars rule will mean more electric vehicles and less exhaust fumes, and funds from a federal pollution settlement with Volkswagen are being used to build car charging stations and electrify school bus fleets.
The Life and Breath reports have been part of those efforts, MPCA’s Bael said. “When the MPCA argued for the reasonableness and need for that [Clean Cars] rule, we did reference the findings…and how that relates to the transportation sector, which is the biggest single contributor to air pollution in Minnesota,” he said.
But many communities in polluted areas still feel like state and local officials are not doing enough. Reports have come and gone — and Minneapolis has recognized polluted neighborhoods as green zones — while residents are still getting sick.
“Maybe agencies are taking [action on] solutions…but these are not community solutions,” said Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Minneapolis), whose district is home to the former site of a metal shredder run by Northern Metals Recycling, which was a major polluter in north Minneapolis.
As he has in previous legislative sessions, Lee has introduced a bill to make the MPCA consider overall pollution before giving air quality permits to industries that might add more dirty air. He has also proposed rules to hold facilities with existing air quality permits — some of which never expire — more accountable for their emissions. But many lawmakers have other priorities, Lee said, and the Republican-controlled Senate has little interest in enacting more environmental regulations.
While legislative solutions are slow, those who study air pollution say there are small but important things Minnesotans can do. Switching to electric or person-powered lawn mowers reduces pollution that leads to more than 1,000 deaths annually, Thakrar said, and deadly road dust can be decreased by keeping up on regular vehicle tire and brake maintenance.
And in a state that burns enough wood to fill U.S. Bank Stadium, setting fewer fires can also cut down on lung-damaging smoke.
But individual and systemic solutions to air pollution are connected, particularly in poorer neighborhoods hit hardest by dirty air. Constituents tell Lee that they need investment “so that they could actually start green businesses to help out their own communities,” he said.
Reducing indoor pollution is also a challenge. “How do we help our people who are financially unable to obtain newer, cleaner appliances, so that they don’t have to live with appliances that may potentially kill them?” Lee said.
Communities hit hard by pollution know what they need to do to clean their neighborhoods — they’re just waiting for elected leaders to help, said the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute’s Holmes. “People know it’s bad. And they acknowledge it, but they don’t do nothing to make it better,” she said. “They don’t give the community the opportunity to make it better.”