A new report by the American Lung Association shows that air quality in the Twin Cities metro area has gotten worse.
While ozone pollution has generally improved, short-term particle pollution has gotten worse, the “State of the Air report” found. Nationally, nearly one in three people live in counties that have unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution, according to the report.
The report grades exposure to unhealthy ground-level ozone air pollution, annual particle pollution and short-term spikes in particle pollution from 2019 to 2021.
The report found that people of color make up around 54% of the roughly 120 million people who live in areas with unhealthy air quality. People of color were 64% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one measure and 3.7 times as likely to live in a county with failing grades for all three measures.
Other factors, like poverty, age and underlying conditions, can also influence the effects of pollution on an individual.
More than 14.6 million people with incomes at or below the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F grade for at least one pollutant, and nearly 2.6 million live in counties that fail all three measures.
The metro area had the same number of unhealthy days of high ozone as last year’s report, which examined 2018-2020. Across the nation, ozone levels have been improving, said Jon Hunter, senior director of Health Promotions and Clean Air for the Lung Association.
When ozone gas is inhaled, it reacts with the airways, causing inflammation and other damage. Ozone exposure can also worsen symptoms for people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and increase people’s susceptibility to respiratory infections.
Being exposed to ozone pollution year-after year can lead to the development of asthma, COPD and increased allergies. And it doesn’t affect everybody in the same way.
“Who is affected is not necessarily equal among us all. People with preexisting respiratory or other health conditions are more dramatically affected by air pollution. So that can include the elderly or Black Minnesotans, (who) have higher rates of asthma and COPD than white Minnesotans,” Hunter said.
Minnesota stayed fairly consistent in its ozone levels. Anoka and Washington counties both dropped one letter grade for ozone pollution from the year before, while Goodhue, Scott, Stearns and Wright all improved one letter grade.
Particle pollution in Twin Cities region
Short-term spikes in particle pollution increased in the Twin Cities. Across the state, 16 counties had grades drop to C’s, D’s, and F’s, according to the report.
Short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to increased mortality in infants, increased hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease and COPD and increased severity of asthma attacks and hospitalization for asthma among children. Some common sources of particle pollution include vehicle exhaust and wildfires.
Some common sources of particle pollution include vehicle exhaust and wildfires, like the 2021 Greenwood Fire in Minnesota.
“It’s driven by a few high days and we had some very high days with both the wildfires in Southern Canada and the Greenwood Fire in the Arrowhead, said Kari Palmer, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) air assessment manager.
More frequent and intense wildfires in the western U.S. significantly contribute to the increasing number of days and places with unhealthy levels of particle pollution, said Hunter.
Year-round, particle pollution levels increased in Minnesota but remained below federal health limits. Over the past 10 years however, the levels have decreased, said Palmer said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently examining the thresholds for what is considered healthy ozone and particle pollution levels. The American Lung Association is advocating for the threshold to include Hennepin County’s annual average concentration of eight micrograms per cubic meter air.
“From our standpoint, the Twin Cities air quality is just right on the edge of the line that we would like to see the EPA set the number at to denote where the science indicates health effects start to occur more clearly,” Hunter said.
There were other notable variances in this year’s report.
Fargo, for example, was in the top 25 for one of the cleanest cities in the country for year-round particle pollution in last year’s report. This year, the city fell off the list and instead had the 22nd-highest particle pollution in the country.
“The same reasons we’ve had air quality issues in the Twin Cities the last couple of years with wildfire smoke have also been true with Fargo. It just hit them harder,” Hunter said.
Hunter said that smoke from those wildfires travels from the west to Minnesota before coming down to ground level, where it can harm anyone who breathes it.
The organization hopes this report will help guide policy decisions regarding climate change.
“This report is a clear demonstration the types of health impacts we can expect as climate change becomes more and more of a prominent (issue),” Hunter said. “We can say that with warming climates, we would expect more droughts that would lead to bigger and more robust fires that would potentially cause these health effects more frequently in the future. So it’s a demonstration from a health standpoint of why it’s important that we be deploying all the solutions we can for climate change.”