Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Bad air days
Larger view
Haze over downtown St. Paul, early Wednesday afternoon. (Photo courtesy of Midwest Hazecam)
Air pollution alerts remained in effect Wednesday for much of southern and eastern Minnesota -- for a third day. In the Twin Cities, air quality is still considered unhealthy for all people. In other parts of the state like Duluth and Rochester, pollution levels are also high. State officials say this pocket of unhealthy air is a rare occurrence for Minnesota, which has relatively clean air most of the year. But environmental and health groups worry that pollution alerts may not be so rare in the years to come.

St. Paul, Minn. — There are many pollutants trapped in the air right now, but the one that's causing the most concern is soot - the fine black particles produced by the combustion of coal, wood, oil, gasoline and diesel fuel. These particles are so tiny you would need to line up 50 of them in a row to match the width of a human hair. Because they're small, they can be inhaled deeply into the lungs.

Malcolm Blumenthal is an allergy and asthma specialist at the University of Minnesota. He says it's hard to say how damaging exposure to these air pollutants is for most people, but it makes many of his patients sicker.

"If you're exposed to a lot of fine particles, regardless of what they are -- if you already have what we call a hyper-reactive airway disease, it can make people worse," says Blumenthal.

In the worst cases, it can even lead to premature death. Blumenthal hasn't heard of that happening with this pollution alert, but he has noticed that more of his patients are complaining about breathing problems.

Tim Gerlach with the Minnesota chapter of the American Lung Association says air pollution is also particularly hard on young children.

"Children suck in more air per pound of body weight than the rest of us," says Gerlach. "And they tend to be outside a lot more, playing at recess and things like that -- and really, kids should not be playing outside today."

Gerlach says he's fielded several calls this week from worried parents and grandparents, who were upset because schools didn't keep kids inside during recess this week.

That kind of response is exactly what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency doesn't want to see. The MPCA, which has been tracking pollution levels on its Web site, says people shouldn't worry excessively about the alert since it's a rare occurrence.

So who or what is contributing the most to the current pollution situation? It's unclear. While the MPCA monitors pollution emissions from industries in the state, the agency doesn't have figures on other sources like motorists and small businesses. Spokewoman Becky Helgesen says there's no efficient way to monitor them.

"It's tough. Do you go house to house and say, 'How many things do you have here? Let's look at your fireplace. Let's look at your wood stove. And you picked up dry cleaning the other day. That emits pollutants.' It gets more complicated," says Helgesen.

Jim Erkel with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy agrees the problem is complicated, but he doesn't think the solution is. He says the state needs to convince more people to buy gas/electric hybrid vehicles, and he says Minnesota needs to invest more in transit. If it doesn't, he says the state will have many more bad air days.

"Between 1997 and 2003, the number of good air days has dropped by half. And the number of moderate days, which is just below the level of unhealthy for sensitive groups, has increase five-fold," says Erkel. "The trend certainly is on its way up. Although we haven't had air this bad for many years, the models are all suggesting that we're going to be getting worse, and we're probably going to be seeing this much more often."

The current air quality alert isn't expected to last much longer. Winds are already beginning to blow some of the pollution out of the state. But environmentalists say Minnesotans shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief just yet -- because even if the bad air gets better here, it's still headed somewhere else.