Talking Minnesota air quality with U of M
Using the most current outdoor air quality data available, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently released a report on how air pollution affects health across the state.
Jesse Berman with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and an advisor to the report’s authors, answers questions about air quality in Minnesota, the health impacts of air pollution and what people can do to protect themselves from poor air quality.
Q: Overall, how is the air quality in Minnesota?
Dr. Berman: We are fortunate because Minnesota has better overall air quality compared to other states. However, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Like all regions, Minnesota experiences its share of high air pollution events. Recently, we had several air quality warnings due to wildfire smoke from the western U.S. and Canada. In wintertime, Minnesota also experiences inversion events where warm air in the atmosphere traps colder air near the ground. This acts like a lid on a pot and allows air pollutants to build up to unhealthy levels. Though infrequent, these events put citizens at risk.
Q: What particles or pollutants in the air are often linked to serious illnesses?
Dr. Berman: The air pollution we most commonly associate with health effects are particulate matter and gases, notably ozone and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Particulate matter is commonly produced through combustion, such as engine exhaust and power generation. These particles are very tiny and when inhaled they penetrate deep into the lungs. Ozone and NOx gases are also inhaled and will interact with sensitive lung surfaces to impact your breathing. Sometimes we hear the term smog, which refers to a visible and dense mixture of both particulates and gases. If you see a brown haze over the skyline on a hot summer day, that is what we consider smog.
Q: What health conditions are associated with poor air quality and who is most at risk?
Dr. Berman: The most frequent impacts of air pollution are cardiovascular- and respiratory-related health effects. This might include exacerbating asthma, wheezing and even hospitalizations. In extreme cases, air pollution has been shown to increase deaths. While poor air quality can put anyone at risk, some groups are more susceptible. This includes children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory disease such as people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Q: When air quality alerts are issued, what should people do to protect themselves?
Dr. Berman: People can take a few steps to protect themselves during periods of poor air quality. Avoid the outdoors when conditions are at their worst, including afternoon and early evening. Morning is a better time to plan any activities. It is best to stay inside on high air pollution days if you are among the susceptible groups (e.g., infants, children, elderly, those with existing disease). For people who like to exercise outdoors, try doing an early morning workout or going to the gym on bad air quality days.
Q: How are you advancing research on air quality to better protect public health?
Dr. Berman: It seems that each day we learn of new ways air pollution affects our health. Working with colleagues from Colorado State University, we are exploring the impact of air pollution on aggressive and violent behavior. The belief is that air pollution affects our brain and will increase impulsive behavior, such as the “fight or flight” response. I am also collaborating with colleagues at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to explore how short-term air pollution affects our immediate cardiovascular responses. We are hoping this research will help inform interventions for people exercising in the outdoors.
Jesse Berman is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. His areas of expertise include air pollution, environmental epidemiology, exposure assessment, and weather.
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