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Why You Should Care: Air Quality and Your Health

Why You Should Care: Air Quality and Your Health

Minnesota’s air currently meets all federal air quality standards. However, even levels of air pollution below the standards can affect people’s health, including levels currently found in parts of Minnesota. We take a look at why it's important to care about the quality of air around you, including in your home.

No matter where you live, you can be exposed to air pollution from vehicle exhaust, smoke, road dust, industrial emissions, pollen, gas-fueled yard equipment, chemicals we use in our homes, and other sources. Air pollution also increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, and more severely affects people who are already ill.

Man coughing and holding up his hand to keep people away.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) found that air pollution played a role in 10% of all deaths (about 1,600 people) in the Twin Cities metro, along with nearly 500 hospitalizations and emergency room visits for heart and lung problems. (2015 data)

Overall air quality in Minnesota has slowly improved since 2008 and currently meets federal standards. Unfortunately, even low-to-moderate levels of pollution can contribute to serious illness and early death.

Data from the Minnesota Department of Health show disparities in heart and lung disease by age, race/ethnicity, income level, and geography. Minnesota also has significant disparities in asthma prevalence by race/ethnicity.  The asthma hospitalization rate among Twin Cities children is more than 50% higher than among children living in Greater Minnesota.

Populations most at risk of health problems related to air pollution include:

  • infants and young children
  • adults over 65
  • people with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • people who work or exercise outdoors
  • people with a cardiovascular disease
  • people in poverty; people who lack access to health care
  • people who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke
  • people working in occupations where there is high exposure to contaminated air
  • people who spend a lot of time near busy roadways

Overhead view of pine trees and smoke.

People who frequently breathe wood smoke are at risk for serious adverse health effects. Wood smoke contains wood tars, gases, and soot, as well as chemicals like carbon monoxide, dioxins, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and fine particles.

Residential wood burning accounted for 55% of Minnesota’s direct fine particle emissions in the most recent emissions inventory. While many other sources of air pollution are declining, the estimated pollution from wood smoke has increased.

Short-term exposure to fine particles in the air can aggravate lung disease, trigger asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase the risk of respiratory infections. Scientists have also linked short-term exposures to heart attacks and abnormal heartbeats. Over time, breathing fine particles in the air increases the chances of developing chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, or lung cancer. In high concentrations, wood smoke can permanently damage lung tissue.

Indoor Air Pollution

Up close image of a fireplace with flames.

On average, Americans spend approximately 90% of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor concentrations. Moreover, people who are most susceptible to the effects of pollution (e.g., the very young, older adults, people with cardiovascular or respiratory disease) tend to spend even more time indoors.

Common indoor air pollutants include radon, smoke, and lead dust. Carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace, mold from damp walls, or volatile organic compounds from a newly painted room also contaminate indoor air. Pollutants such as fine particles from candles or fireplaces (or from the outdoors) also affect our health.

Biological pollutants—such as mold, pollen, animal dander, dust mites, and cockroaches—may trigger breathing problems, allergic symptoms, or asthma attacks. Tobacco smoke contains some 200 known poisons, such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, and at least 60 chemicals known to cause cancer. Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

What You Can Do

  1. Know when air quality is unhealthy. Check out the MPCA Air Quality Index and sign up for air quality forecasts and alerts.

  2. Protect yourself while driving. Close your windows when you're in traffic and set your ventilation system to recirculate the air to avoid breathing vehicle exhaust. Choose driving routes that are less traveled, especially by diesel vehicles.

  3. Avoid exposure to pollutants. Keep away from wood smoke, vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and other sources of airborne particles, whenever possible. Avoid prolonged outdoor exertion near busy roadways or on days when the air quality is poor.

  4. Testing for contaminants in the home may be useful to help identify and evaluate potential hazards, such as lead, radon, asbestos, and other contaminants. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) provides information about testing, and is available to the public, upon request, to help interpret test results. Testing may be costly or relatively inexpensive depending on the contaminants, type of test, and the number of samples required. Additional guidance about testing is available on the MDH website.
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