Smoke from wildfires in Canada in July 2021 caused poor air quality and visibility in the Twin Cities. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Meteorologists are warning that temperatures in the Twin Cities could reach 98 degrees Fahrenheit on Tuesday, and forecasts show that air quality could also take a hit across Minnesota. 

Those conditions mean some Minnesotans could face more health dangers.

“On average, the air quality is good here. But health effects are especially felt in overburdened communities,” Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist Kathy Raleigh said in a Zoom press call earlier this year in March while announcing findings of new reports by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Department of Health based on 2015 data. “We have seen that even low and moderate levels of air pollution can contribute to serious illness and death.”

Meteorologists believe that air quality will generally be better in Minnesota this summer than last year. But recent local and national research confirms that certain groups of people fare worse on bad air days. Those groups include people of color, low-income earners, and people in neighborhoods where racist policies–redlining–historically relegated Blacks to specific areas.

Small deviations in air quality can have big impacts on health. So even on a day like Tuesday, when AirNow.gov predicts that air quality will be “moderate,” those groups will likely be disproportionately impacted. The “moderate” air quality category means people who are “unusually sensitive” to ozone, a natural gas found in the atmosphere, should consider reducing outdoor activity level, according to airnow.gov.

When hot temperatures and sun combine with pollutants from cars and industrial facilities, ozone pollution, also known as smog, can form. Often, air becomes stagnant on hot days, trapping the smog close to ground level. Breathing in smoggy air can trigger immediate health effects such as coughing and inflammation of the airways, and can increase the risk of contracting asthma and diabetes. 

Both Tuesday and Thursday of this week are predicted to be in the “moderate” category, with a respite in the “good” category on Wednesday.

According to a new report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), an estimated 10 percent of all deaths in the Twin Cities in 2015–the most up-to-date data–were related to air pollution. Residents living in largely Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) neighborhoods visited the emergency room for pollution-related asthma problems five times more than people from white neighborhoods. They also visited the emergency room for heart problems attributed to air pollution more than their peers in other neighborhoods. 

Consequences of racism

The same week the MDH reports were released, a national analysis of redlining maps and air quality published in the scientific journal, Environmental Science and Technology Letters, offered some explanation for the disparities: Neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s–such as Rondo in St. Paul and East Phillips in Minneapolis–were saddled with freeways and industrial plants, many of which still exist and continue to pollute the areas. Those zip codes still contain higher levels of nitrogen dioxide from industrial facilities and freeway traffic, which contributes to forming smog. 

Air pollution is one way racism still lingers, often with crushing health consequences, said Julian D. Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and one of the national study’s co-authors. Other environmental and health consequences, such as excessive heat, have previously been linked to redlining, but this is the first study that has connected air pollution with the practice. 

The good news is that air quality is improving. Deaths in the Twin Cities linked to air pollution declined by 26 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the state report. MPCA and MDH officials and environmental justice advocates are calling for further improvements to air quality. Even a modest reduction in air pollution could reduce the number of Minnesotans who die prematurely each year by 185 to 200, they said. 

Tee McClenty, executive director of the climate justice nonprofit MN350, said she saw health consequences from poor air quality firsthand when she worked at NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis. Asthma and allergies are so prevalent among low-income communities of color, she said, that she often had to escort wheezing patients to the emergency room at the healthcare center. 

Protect yourself

There are ways to protect yourself from bad air quality, McClenty said. 

First, know your health conditions, she said. Having any necessary medication on hand is key, she said, so make sure you have a primary care doctor you can visit annually.

“We know that communities of color and lower-income people are often uninsured or under-insured,” McClenty said. “We have organizations out there that can provide resources to those communities, because going to the ER is not the answer.”

A primary health provider can also help you determine what triggers your health issues, which could include air quality, she said.

Second, be aware of the air quality forecast, McClenty said. Air quality reports are updated daily at AirNow.gov, the AirNow app and on MPCA’s website. Color-coded levels of air quality indicate levels of health concerns. Green is considered “good,” red is “unhealthy,” and maroon is “hazardous.”

“It’s really stressful and scary when your neighborhood lights up in red on the [air quality] map,” especially if you’re among the 1 in 4 Minnesotans with a respiratory or heart condition that makes you more vulnerable, said Jessie Shmool, an environmental epidemiologist supervisor with the Minnesota Environmental Public Health Tracking and Biomonitoring programs. 

Health experts say people with health conditions that are impacted by poor air quality should lay low as levels fall into the yellow-to-maroon categories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting the amount of air you breathe outdoors by spending more time inside with the windows closed, going outside in the mornings and evenings when ozone levels are usually lower, and choosing activities that require less exertion (walking instead of running, for example).

How air quality affects your health. Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

And don’t forget the big picture, McClenty said. That includes making climate justice a political priority, she said.

“We look to meteorologists to tell us what the weather is going to be like, but elected officials also have a responsibility to make the air better,” she said. “We need to push elected officials, especially the ones who campaign on climate justice, and hold them accountable to the things they can do.”

Check air quality reports at:

Tips to protect yourself on poor air quality days:

  • Stay indoors with the windows closed.
  • If you must go outside, do it during the mornings or evenings when ozone levels are usually lower.
  • Choose activities that require less exertion, such as walking instead of running.
  • Know your health conditions and speak to your primary care physician.
  • Keep any necessary medications handy.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...