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Study links air pollution to 2,000 Minnesota deaths

The "Life and Breath" report released Tuesday showed air pollution contributing to about 2,000 Minnesota deaths in 2015, including 200 deaths in Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud.

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DULUTH — Air pollution was a contributing factor to 2,000-4,000 deaths across Minnesota in 2015, according to the new "Life and Breath" report from the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

According to the report released Tuesday morning, fine particles in the air and ground-level ozone contributed to heart and lung problems that led to approximately 500 hospital stays, 800 emergency room visits and 2,000-4,000 deaths across the state, according to department of health records and 2013 air quality data. The fine particles, known as PM2.5, can enter the respiratory tract and cause irritation, and even can penetrate into the bloodstream.

Despite Minnesota's air quality meeting federal standards, David Bael, an environmental economic analyst for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who co-authored the report, said there are still concerns about air pollution and its effects on residents, especially people in vulnerable populations. Groups who are most impacted by pollution include people living in poverty or with preexisting heart or lung conditions, people without health insurance, children with uncontrolled asthma and elderly people.

There is also a correlation between health impacts from pollution and structural inequalities, including systemic racism, housing insecurity, discrimination in health care and other social and economic stressors.

"Areas with more poverty, higher percentage of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) residents, higher levels of un-insurance, or higher prevalence of disability each show increasing attributable rates for every estimated health impact," the "Life and Breath" report stated.

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The report stated that if fine-particle and ozone levels decreased by 10% from 2013 data, which is the most recent air-quality information available, up to 500 early deaths could be prevented in Minnesota. Of the 62 deaths in Duluth, six could be prevented with that decrease. Eight of the 74 deaths in Rochester could be prevented.

Pollution is estimated to have played a role in nearly 9% of deaths in Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud in 2015. Bael said this is similar to Alzheimer's deaths. Cancer was the leading cause of death in the three cities, accounting for about 22% of deaths, and heart disease was the second, accounting for 18%.

Co-author Kathy Raleigh, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the analysis predates the coronavirus pandemic, which has increased the amount of cardio-pulmonary conditions that could be worsened by poor air quality. In addition, smoke from wildfires in recent years has caused unsafe air-quality conditions for days to weeks at a time.

The study, which compiled data from the Twin Cities metro area, Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud, noted that larger cities are not the only regions in the state with high risks of air pollution. There are several contributing factors, Raleigh said, including proximity to busy highways or industrial plants. Higher levels of ozone pollution are found in the southern region of Minnesota, and fine particle levels are higher in metro areas and parts of southeast Minnesota.

Symptoms of air pollution exposure include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and fatigue. Asthma, COPD, heart disease and emphysema can be worsened by exposure.

Bael said avoiding exposure is mostly common sense action, including monitoring air quality indexes and avoiding unnecessary activities outside on bad air quality days. While there is no set timeline for the MPCA and MDH's goal to reduce air pollution by 10%, Bael said the goal is achievable and can prevent deaths and hospitalizations. He credited state and federal regulations, as well as technology improvements, for already reducing air pollution in Minnesota.

Epidemiologist Jessie Shmool said the state agencies are focusing on managing underlying cardio-pulmonary health conditions in Minnesotans, but added that local agencies should also get involved to help prevent and manage heart and lung conditions. Currently, 1 in 4 Minnesotans have a cardiovascular or respiratory condition that could worsen when exposed to air pollution.

The "Life and Breath" reports for Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro are available on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Health websites. The reports released Tuesday are new analyses following up on the 2019 statewide report, which is part of the agencies' Joint Environmental Risks Initiative.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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