How the MPCA plans to figure out which Twin Cities neighborhoods have the worst air

The MPCA has a big two-year monitoring project coming up.

The air we breathe can have a serious impact on our health.

In 2008, air pollution contributed to 2,000 deaths in the Twin Cities alone, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found – meaning fine particles and ground-level ozone made their conditions worse.

With things like that in mind, the agency (known as the MPCA) is getting ready to kick off a two-year study to figure out exactly which communities in the Twin Cities breathe the worst air.

Sensors will be placed in every ZIP code

The MPCA will use air quality monitoring sensors to gather data over the two years for the Assessing Urban Air Quality project.

Sensors will be placed in every ZIP code (that's 24 for Minneapolis and 14 for St. Paul), and some of the larger ZIP codes could get more than one monitoring device, the MPCA says. There will be a max of 50.

It's the first time the MPCA has used this newer sensor technology in a big air project like this, said Air Quality Risk Assessor Monika Vadali. The agency landed a $700,000 grant through the state to pay for it.

"Size-wise, they are probably the size of a shoe box," Vadali said, compared to a few square feet a traditional air monitor would need. 

And they're significantly cheaper, about $8,000-$10,000 per unit versus close to $100,000 for the usual one used. (The MPCA right now is reviewing a public bid from sensor vendors to pick the best option.)

The sensors will measure and monitor a handful of pollutants:

  • Fine particles – microscopic matter from a number of sources that can get into your lungs.
  • Ozone – ground-level pollutants that form when sunlight causes a reaction in chemicals emitted by cars, power plants and other sources.
  • Nitrogen dioxide – a pollutant that comes from burning fossil fuels.
  • Sulfur dioxide – is released when things that contain sulfur (like oil and coal) are burned.
  • Carbon monoxide – goes into the air when the carbon in fuels doesn't fully burn off.

These sensors will be placed starting in January 2018. The MPCA wants help figuring out where to put them – the sensors need to be 10-15 feet off the ground without trees or buildings that obstruct air flow. 

The agency also wants to consider how close they are to daycares, schools, playgrounds, senior housing, residential areas and traffic.

"Where people spend most of their time outdoors" Vadali said.

The MPCA is holding four open houses to get feedback from residents about where they should be placed. The first one is Aug. 31 – you can see the schedule here.

What they want to figure out

Researchers hope the data helps them understand "small-scale differences" with air pollution in the city.

They also want to figure out if certain ZIP codes have way more air pollution than others; whether there are spots with "unusually high" levels of pollution; and whether this technology even works well for measuring small differences in the air quality.

An MPCA report from earlier this year found the state's air quality in general is good, and above national standards. But studies show there are groups that are affected more by air pollution – particularly poor people and communities of color.

These communities are often located near pollution sources like busy roads and factories, and also tend to have less access to healthy food, health care, safe and clean places to play, as well as other amenities that support a healthy lifestyle, the agency says.

This disparity between groups is referred to as "environmental injustice." The MPCA talks about it's goals to address the imbalance here.

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