Air pollution contributes to 2,000 deaths in the Twin Cities annually, report says

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Air pollution disproportionately impacts Twin Cities residents, with the elderly and people of color being the most affected, according to a new report.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released the "Life and Breath" report Monday, which estimates the impact of air pollution on public health in the seven-county metro area.

“This report helps us see much more clearly than we could before just who is affected by air pollution, how serious the effects are and where we have health disparities that need to be addressed,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said in a news release.

Breathing air that has elevated levels of fine particles (particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles) is known to cause a variety of health problems, and although air quality in Minnesota meets federal standards, the report found that even low and moderate levels of air pollution can contribute to serious illnesses or early death.

In 2008 (the most recent data available), air pollution contributed to 2,000 deaths in the Twin Cities – about 6-13 percent of all metro-area deaths that year, the report found. About 2-5 percent of people who visited the hospital for heart or lung problems did so because air pollutants worsened their conditions, the report found.

The populations most affected by the health impacts of breathing polluted air are people of color, the elderly, children with uncontrolled asthma and people living in poverty, the report notes. This is primarily because these populations already have higher rates of heart and lung conditions.

Scientists say treating the underlying cause for conditions that can be worsened when people breathing polluted air, as well as continuing efforts to improve air quality, could help prevent hundreds of deaths and hospitalizations attributed to breathing pollutants, the report notes.

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said in the release that people can't control Canadian wildfires, which prompted the air quality in Minnesota to be compared to Beijing last week, but people can look at the choices they make in an effort to reduce particle pollution.

A few things people can do to help:

  • Drive the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can afford.
  • Take public transportation, walk, or bike whenever possible.
  • Limit wood-burning activities like backyard bonfires.
  • Look for alternatives to fossil-fuel-burning small engines such as electric lawnmowers and weed trimmers rather than those that use gas.

Find more information about Minnesota's air quality, who is affected by it, and ways to help improve it on the state's new Be Air Aware website.

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