David Phillips: Air pollution more of a threat than the eye can easily detect

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

A joint analysis by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that, while air quality in the state is generally good and meets federal standards, air pollution in Minnesota plays a measurable role in deaths and hospitalizations across the state.

More surprising, the new report, which broadens a 2015 study of just the Twin Cities metro area, shows the impact of air pollution isn’t limited to the state’s urban core as even people in rural areas can feel the effects. In fact, air pollution in Fillmore County, for example, has more of an impact on local residents than it does on residents of nearly the entire metro Twin Cities area.

That may seem counterintuitive since Fillmore County is far from major pollution sources and the air in this part of rural Minnesota appears to be clean.

That’s the tricky thing about air pollution:

• Pollution doesn’t stop at county, state or even national borders. For example, our area has already this year experienced a muted sun for several days caused by smoke from Canadian forest fires, an occurrence that is becoming increasingly common in recent years. Air pollution alerts often encompass a wide area, including most of southeastern Minnesota when they are issued.

• Pollution isn’t always visible. Minnesota’s clean-looking air still contains fine particles and ozone that play a role in up to 4,000 deaths, 500 hospitalizations and 800 emergency-room visits annually.

• Air pollution doesn’t affect everyone equally.  Groups most affected include older adults, children with uncontrolled asthma, people in poverty and the uninsured, all of which are more predominant in rural areas of Minnesota.

The air pollution that has the most impact on Fillmore County residents is fine particles. About 10 percent of all deaths in Fillmore County are attributed to fine particles air pollution. That puts the county in the state’s top 10, with Traverse County leading the way. The study attributes about 232 deaths per year in Fillmore County due to this type of air pollution.

In the entire state, fine particle pollution contributes to an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 deaths, 300 respiratory hospitalizations, 140 cardiovascular hospitalizations and 525 asthma-related visits to the emergency room in one year. The main impact of fine particle pollution is early death.

Summertime ground-level ozone pollution doesn’t have as much of an impact in Minnesota, even less so in Fillmore County in relation to the state as a whole, but another 39 deaths in the county are attributed to this type of air pollution each year.

Reasons Fillmore County residents are more vulnerable to air pollution than people in the Twin Cities or even Olmsted County is due to the demographics of the county more than the quality of the air. A higher percentage of residents than the state average are uninsured, which has an impact on treating conditions related to air pollution. Although not noticeably different than the state in percentage of residents living in poverty, Fillmore County and other rural counties tend to have pockets of poverty that make these people more vulnerable to health impacts from air pollution.

Elderly people, who are more predominant in rural areas including Fillmore County, are also among the most vulnerable. Structural inequities, such as income, transportation patterns, community social status, education and housing are other major contributors to how residents’ health is affected by air pollution.

People in Fillmore County, or any Minnesota county, who have survived the mildly polluted air, yet haven’t visited an emergency room or been hospitalized for the effects of air pollution, likely have still been affected in some way. Just the act of breathing can draw pollution into the lungs and bloodstream, leading to small annoyances such as coughing, itchy eyes, shortness of breath, fatigue and other symptoms. It can also make existing conditions, such as cardiovascular and heart disease or asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), worse.

Because the source can be so far away and the pollutants so pervasive across geographically diverse areas, this is a complex, even overwhelming, problem that may give people reason to believe it is hopeless to try to fix.

While a concerted, widespread effort by leaders in power is needed to help stem the spread of pollution, not to mention correct some of the structural inequities that contribute to the vulnerability of certain populations, there are also small steps individuals can take to reduce air pollution in their daily lives. For example, idling cars, gas-fueled yard equipment and chemicals used in homes all contribute to overall air pollution, not to mention directly exposing those people to harmful air pollutants. Reducing some of those activities, even just a little bit, can help.

Just as all people are affected by the spread of air pollution, even those who live in what are thought of as clean, rural counties far away from belching smokestacks, all people, in a way, contribute to the problem just by participating in modern society.

It’s a catch 22 that can lead some people to despair, yet it is important for people to be mindful that while there is no escape from the adverse consequences of much-desired progress, even seemingly insignificant steps can lead to improved personal health — and the health of individuals living far, far away.