FAQ: What Do We Know About Minneapolis Air Pollution?

An overview of how Minneapolis air pollution is impacted by shifting weather patterns, emissions from buildings and cars, and what we can do about it.

After several people reported this week increased asthma issues — one friend ended up in urgent care — I looked into what we know about Minneapolis air pollution.

From Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

  • Contact for a recording of air quality issues – including how to make a complaint about an industrial emitter– 651-296-7300
  • Contact at Department of Health for questions about indoor air quality, which is typically worse than outdoor air quality – 651-201-4601.

Q: What are the symptoms of exposure to poor air quality?

Sore throat, persistent cough, burning eyes, wheezing, shortness of breath or chest pain.The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) reports that elevated pollution levels can trigger asthma attacks, hospital admissions and emergency room visits, heart attacks, and premature death.

Q: How do we test our air quality?

The MPCA has an hourly reporting system to establish an Air Quality Index (AQI), determined by data collected at monitoring sites at 10 locations around the state (one in Twin Cities) of five pollutants: fine particles, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

Importantly, however, the AQI does not measure unusual air toxic pollutants that can impact health effects, nor does it account for temperature or pollen levels, which may increase sensitivity to pollutants.

Q: What causes increased air pollution?

Poor air quality comes from local sources — such as industry, vehicles and homes — as well as pollution that blows in from surrounding areas.

Short-term increases in emissions (other than wildfire smoke, as we experienced in Summer 2015 from Canada, and fireworks) are less likely to be triggers. More commonly AQI is impacted by changing weather conditions, which “increase the rate at which air pollutants are formed or accumulate in the air.”

  • Hot and sunny days with little wind are especially impactful on ozone pollutions levels. The nitrogen oxides we emit are coupled with volatile organic compounds in the environment. Their speed of chemical reaction is increased in hot weather.
  • Those living downwind of urban centers tend to be affected the most.
  • Shifts happen on an annual basis because of weather patterns. There are more poor air quality days from ozone pollution in years when we have more very-high-temperature days (as the U.S. did in 2015).
  • Between November and March we tend to have the highest levels of fine particle pollution. These microscopic particles are emitted from pollution sources and easily trapped in the air, to react with our sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. This is increasingly impacted by high humidity, high pressure, strong overnight temperature inversions, or low wind speeds.

Q: What happens when air quality is less than ideal?

An advisory alert is issued when those sensitive to air pollution might be impacted by a shift measured in AQI. Residents can sign up for alerts here.

Those with heart and lung issues, the elderly, children, and those engaged in activities with heavy exertion can be affected by a modest shift.

The days that I learned of increased asthma issues this week correlated with four days out of the month when the AQI in the area was reported as moderate (yellow), rather than good (green). Other levels include: “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (orange), “unhealthy” (red), and “very unhealthy,” (maroon).

From Green Biz October 21 article, “So long, toxics: A builder’s guide to safer chemicals” — Health experts long have recognized the risks of individual and groups of toxic chemicals in building products, beginning with lead and asbestos and continuing to formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, mercury, arsenic, certain phthalates and flame retardants. These chemicals, among many others, are associated with a range of adverse health and environmental effects, including cancer, obesity, asbestosis, ecotoxicity, endocrine disruption and neurotoxicity. ‘At their worst, our building materials and designs, and our choices about location, building construction, operation and maintenance, contribute to some of the key public health concerns of modern society,’ the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) noted.

Q: How can individuals minimize pollution impact?

MPCA offers a few obvious ways to minimize exposure to pollutants. On higher impact days, avoid time spent near busy roadways, idling vehicles, construction equipment, and burning activities such as recreational fires. But on an ongoing basis:

Did you know we are often impacted more from the home environment than by outdoor air quality?

  • Does your home have environmentally safe paints and cleaning products?
  • Are cleaners, paints, and other chemicals properly sealed, to prevent evaporation into the air?
  • If you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, burn only dry, seasoned wood.
  • Use Energy Star equipment and appliances, to reduce emissions.

To minimize outdoor pollution:

  • Reduce vehicle emissions. Choose a cleaner commute — car pool, use public transportation, bike or walk. Combine errands and avoid idling. Have properly inflated tires. Make fuel efficiency a priority.
  • During the summer months avoid refueling before 8 p.m.

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