Minnesota will track urban air pollution by ZIP code

Source: By Jennifer Bjorhus, Star Tribune • Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2019

MPCA wants to compare Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhood health statistics with contaminant levels.

Twin Cities residents interested in the air quality of their neighborhoods can now find out with the click of a mouse on a state website.

The new mapping tool is part of an urban air-quality monitoring project at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) aimed at understanding the relationship between common air contaminants and public health effects, such as asthma and early deaths, broadening the state’s effort to tackle the issue known as health equity.

“We do understand that there is some kind of relation between air pollution and asthma,” said MPCA environmental research scientist Monika Vadali. “The goal was to understand how air pollution varies from ZIP code to ZIP code because we don’t have any data on that.”

State health officials have already shown that hospitalization rates for asthma, for example, vary greatly by ZIP code in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with neighborhoods that are poorer and more heavily minority suffering significantly higher rates.

In fact, Minnesota “has some of the largest health disparities in the country,” according to the state’s second “Life and Breath” report released in June.

The agency is collecting local air pollution data through a network of 44 solar-powered air monitors mounted on streetlights, lamp posts and wooden posts around the two cities.

The monitors contain sensors and a laser device to measure the particles and transmit minute-by-minute readings to agency researchers. The air contaminants being measured include carbon monoxide, coarse and fine particles such as soot or dust, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone.

The online mapping tool — a work in progress — is updated weekly.

It’s the first time the state has collected such fine-scale, ZIP-code level information on air pollutants. Until now, researchers have had to rely on models not based on actual measurements, the MPCA’s Vadali said. The new data will give researchers a better understanding of the variability of air pollution in cities.

It’s too early to draw any conclusions from the readings, she said. Results won’t be ready until later next year.

Teddie Potter, director of planetary health at the University of Minnesota’s nursing school, said the research is important. Potter said she suspects that areas with higher levels of asthma are connected to traffic corridors where there is more exposure to air pollution. But getting concrete measurements is crucial.

“We can have some ideas, but to be responsibly using funding and to be responsibly educating and alerting communities, we want to make sure we’re acting based on science,” Potter said.

Rising air pollution and pollen due to climate change is “definitely having an impact” in aggravating asthma, Potter said.

The MPCA project is financed with a $700,000 grant from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources; the money comes from the state’s lottery-funded Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Vadali and her team are holding community meetings on the project and ideas for making the mapping tool more useful.

Three community meetings are set for Oct. 15 at St. Paul’s Wellstone Center; Oct. 28 at the Audubon Park Rec Center in Minneapolis; and Nov. 14 at the Powderhorn Park Rec Center in Minneapolis. All meetings start at 6:30 p.m.