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Low-income, diverse communities face greater health impacts from air pollution

From the MN Department of Health:

New data reviews focused on Twin Cities metro, other large regional centers

Two new brief reports released today by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) find that air pollution continues to pose a threat to public health in the Twin Cities and regional centers in Greater Minnesota, with impacts falling disproportionately on communities with more residents who are low-income, uninsured, people of color, or people with a disability.

The reports, Life and Breath: Metro and Life and Breath: Greater Minnesota, examine how air pollution affected health in 2015, the most recent year for which data has been analyzed, across the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, and in three Greater Minnesota regional centers: Duluth, Rochester, and St. Cloud. The reports build on previous Life and Breath reports that looked at air pollution’s health effects in certain Twin Cities zip codes and across all counties statewide.

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

While Minnesota’s air quality has improved over the past few decades and meets federal standards, even low and moderate levels of pollution play a measurable role in premature deaths and hospitalizations across the state. The report also found:

  • In the Twin Cities metro, air pollution played a role in 10% of all deaths (about 1,600 people) along with nearly 500 hospitalizations and emergency room visits for heart and lung problems.

  • Air pollution was estimated to play a role in 280 deaths in the three Greater Minnesota cities studied, attributable to:

    • 8% of all deaths in Duluth

    • 10% of all deaths in Rochester

    • 8% of all deaths in St. Cloud

  • Across all studied cities, pollution-related deaths were more prevalent than deaths from accidents, which make up 6% of all deaths.

The findings are consistent with previous reports, demonstrating that air quality poses a persistent public health problem despite overall improvements in air quality. Between 2008 and 2015, for example, fine particles (PM2.5) pollution improved by about 30% and ozone pollution improved by nearly 10% in the Twin Cities metro.

In all of the cities studied, the report found communities facing discrimination, barriers to access and structural racism generally had the highest estimated rates of air pollution-related death and disease. These structural inequities, along with other social and economic stressors, lead to higher levels of heart and lung disease that make residents in marginalized communities more susceptible to the effects of poor air quality. For example, 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,” said Dr. Brooke Cunningham, assistant commissioner of MDH’s Health Equity Bureau. “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.”

Reducing air pollution is part of state agencies’ overall strategy to address structural inequities in health care, housing, and other social factors that influence health. The findings of the Life and Breath reports, along with other MPCA and MDH analyses and community conversations, will inform where to direct resources for pollution reduction as well as efforts to address health inequities.

More information and the data briefs can be found at MPCA’s Life and Breath and on the MDH website at Life and Breath: Metro and Life and Breath: Greater Minnesota.


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