The Potluck

Twin Cities residents far more likely to die of air pollution than homicide, study finds

By: - August 17, 2022 12:59 pm

Air pollution in Minneapolis. The city skyline was engulfed in smoke from Canada wildfires in 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Air pollution from car exhaust, wildfires and other sources kills over 300 Minneapolis and St. Paul residents annually, according to new estimates from a leading team of air quality researchers. That number has risen in recent years as air quality has slightly deteriorated in the upper Midwest. 

The figure is almost certainly an underestimate of the true burden of air pollution in the Twin Cities: It does not reflect the effects of fine particle pollution on infants, which are known to be especially severe. It also doesn’t include mortality from other pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, whose health effects are less studied but thought to be smaller.

“Air pollution is responsible for 1 in 9 deaths worldwide and accounts for 6.7 million deaths in 2019 alone,” the study’s authors write. Fine particles from fuel combustion and wildfires are the most harmful pollutants because their size allows them to easily enter the bloodstream, where they play havoc on a variety of bodily systems.

“Breathing polluted air increases a person’s risk of heart disease, lung diseases and respiratory infections, type 2 diabetes, and more,” the authors explain. “Mothers’ exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of their infants being born too small or too early. Polluted air has also been linked to asthma and lower respiratory infections among children.”

Recent research has found that the particles can also affect brain functioning and cognition. Exposure to fine particle pollution is closely linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s development, and the particles have been shown to slow the cognition and decrease the productivity of everyone from farm workers to office employees to school children.

All of those health conditions add up to an increased risk of death for people exposed to even small levels of fine particle pollution over long periods of time. 

While violent crime looms large in the public imagination for its risks to life and limb, homicides add up to just a fraction of air pollution deaths both worldwide and closer to home. In 2019, for instance, roughly four times as many Twin Cities residents were killed by air pollution as were murdered. The 154 homicides in Hennepin and Ramsey counties in 2021 still only add up to about half the local death toll from air pollution in a typical year.

Chart of MSP air pollution and homicide deaths

There are some good reasons why air pollution doesn’t get covered and debated with the same fervor as violent crime. Homicides tend to have clearly defined perpetrators and victims. Air pollution, by contrast, isn’t listed as the cause of death on any one person’s death certificate. Its effects are diffuse, silently driving other conditions, like heart and lung disease, that get cited in official statistics. 

But that widespread burden is also an argument for why the average person might want to pay more attention to the air quality in their area. While violent neighborhoods and risky situations can be avoided, there’s no escape from the air we breathe.

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Christopher Ingraham
Christopher Ingraham

Christopher Ingraham covers greater Minnesota and reports on data-driven stories across the state. He's the author of the book "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now," about his family's journey from the Baltimore suburbs to rural northwest Minnesota. He was previously a data reporter for the Washington Post.