Commentary

The burden of Minnesota’s air pollution is unequal | Opinion

May 18, 2022 6:00 am

A march across the Lowry Avenue Bridge, protesting air pollution from the Northern Metal Recycling facility in north Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 7, 2016. Photo by Tony Webster.

In February, the Minnesota Department of Health released the results of a pioneering study that examined chemical exposure from air pollutants in preschool-age children. The report received scant attention, despite the fact that the results were quite shocking, and this was the first comprehensive study of its kind that focused on pre-K children in Minnesota.

For the study, researchers measured the levels of 21 metals, pesticides and air pollution chemicals in urine samples from children who live in north Minneapolis and in Becker, Todd and Wadena counties. They found that urine from children who live in the more urban setting contained higher levels of several air pollutants that belong to a larger class of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

PAHs are common air pollution chemicals created during combustion from engines, grills and even burning incense and candles. What’s more, when measuring the atmospheric concentrations of PAHs in these locations, the researchers found that air pollutant levels for each chemical were at least 10 times higher in urban areas.

Although more research is needed to definitively link the elevated concentrations of PAHs in the children’s urine to pollution from vehicles and industry (which are generally much higher in urban settings), the differences between the sampled areas are stark and worth highlighting.

Based on the report’s socioeconomic data, minority and low-income residents tend to be more affected by elevated air pollutants. The urban area had a significantly higher percentage of racial and ethnic minority participants (87%) than the rural counties (7%). There was also a higher likelihood for participants in north Minneapolis to be living in a low-income household, which means they have fewer resources to push back against polluters in their communities and are more vulnerable to environmental degradation.

These findings cannot be taken lightly. The effects of air pollution on human health are dangerous, extensive and even lethal. The World Health Organization labels air pollution as the cause of death for millions each year. Effects on human health can range from short-term respiratory discomfort to long-term organ damage, cancer and heart disease.

For children, whose immune systems tend to be weaker, exposure can lead to impaired neurological development, more incidents of asthma and respiratory distress, and long term damage to the lungs.

For substantial improvements to occur, policy change is necessary. Emissions produced by industrial facilities are one of the greatest contributors to the disparity in air pollutant concentration, both within Minnesota and around the globe.

To release these toxic chemicals, companies are required to obtain air pollution permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency that grant them the right to pollute a certain amount per year. Historically, these permits have been provided without regard to the effects on local communities.

Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-St. Paul, has sought to change this by sponsoring legislation that calls for the MPCA to incorporate demographic analysis, and identify areas of the state that have been disproportionately affected by air pollutants. The measure would require the MPCA to consider the cumulative effects of historical pollution and to deny permit requests based on whether a community has had a legacy of being disproportionately affected by air pollution. This could be a game-changer for communities of color and lower-income communities in north Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Lee’s proposal has been added as an amendment to a larger omnibus bill, SF4062. This is a critical time to show support for it, as state legislators are currently deliberating the bill’s amendments in a conference committee.

It is imperative that we come together to protect vulnerable communities that often don’t have a voice, and this change is a great place to start. With this proposed legislation, the necessary work of undoing the damage caused by decades of unjust environmental policy and practice can finally begin.

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Dheera Yalamanchili
Dheera Yalamanchili

Originally from Wayzata, Dheera Yalamanchili is a junior at Macalester College, where she serves as the Anti-Racism Initiatives Fellow for the Environmental Studies department.

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