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Air pollution continues to pose a threat to public health, with its negative impacts disproportionately affecting low-income and diverse communities across the state.

That's according to two new Life is Breath reports released Tuesday by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). The reports looked at the threat of air pollution in the Twin Cities metro and regional centers in greater Minnesota (Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud). 

These reports will help inform where direct resources to reduce pollution will go, as well as other efforts to address health inequities, a news release said. 

“We know that air quality and health are closely linked,” Craig McDonnell, MPCA assistant commissioner for air and climate policy, said in a statement. “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.”

The Life and Breath reports analyzed how air pollution affected people's health in 2015, the most recent data available. It builds on reports that were released in 2019 and 2015. The reports found that while the state's air quality has improved and meets federal standards, low and moderate levels of air pollution can cause premature deaths and hospitalizations. 

Air pollution played a role in 10% of all deaths, or about 1,600 people, in 2015 in the seven-county Twin Cities metro, the metro-area Life and Breath report found. It also contributed to 500 hospitalizations and emergency room visits for heart and lung problems.

That's down from 2008 though. That year, there were 2,175 deaths in the Twin Cities metro that could be attributable to air pollution, a previous report found. 

In greater Minnesota, there were 203 deaths attributable to air pollution totaling 8.5% of deaths. That includes 62 in Duluth (8% of all deaths), 74 in Rochester (10% of all deaths) and 67 in St. Cloud (8% of all deaths), the greater Minnesota Life and Breath report found

Air pollution played a role in about 48 hospitalizations in the three greater Minnesota cities in 2015, including 13 in Duluth, 20 in Rochester and 15 in St. Cloud. 

The reports note across all cities that were studied, pollution-related deaths were more common than deaths from accidents, which make up about 6% of all deaths. 

Not only that, but the reports found communities with more residents who are low-income, uninsured, people of color, or people with a disability are disproportionately impacted by air pollution and its effects. 

Structural inequities and other social and economic stressors "lead to higher levels of heart and lug disease that make residents in marginalized communities more susceptible to the effects of poor air quality," MDH said. 

The reports say ZIP codes with the largest percentage of residents of color had more than five times the rate of asthma emergency room visits related to air pollution compared to areas with more white residents. 

“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,” Dr. Brooke Cunningham, assistant commissioner of MDH’s Health Equity Bureau, said in a statement. “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.”

MDH and the MPCA say reducing air pollution is part of their overall strategy to address structural inequities in health care, housing and social factors that influence health. 

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