The air we breathe affects our health and the health of our communities. Ambient air quality, meaning the levels of pollutants contained in the air, has steadily improved since the 1970s due in large part to regulations established under the federal Clean Air Act. However, air pollution at low or moderate levels can still negatively impact the health of Minnesotans today. Fine particles and other toxins from industrial activity and transportation can negatively affect human health at any level. Air pollution is estimated to be a major contributor to 3,200 to 6,400 deaths a year in Minnesota and more than 7 million deaths a year worldwide.
Generally, air quality levels are found to be the worst in areas where black, indigenous and people of color or those with low-incomes are more likely to live. Accordingly, air pollution adds to the disparate impacts already present on these communities from our transportation system and economy. However, these effects are not just felt by those communities in urban areas where air pollution is more concentrated. Rural areas of Minnesota also see high rates of deaths caused by to air pollution.
Since 1997, total emissions of air pollution have dropped almost 50% while the economy has continued to grow.1 This decrease in emissions has come from every segment of the economy. Today the transportation sector is the third leading source of air pollution accounting for one fifth of all emissions. Pollutants from motor vehicles have decreased due to regulations and better engine technology. However, this decrease in pollution has not been as robust or consistent as other sectors of the economy.
Air quality has improved most notably from technology advances, increased emission regulations and to a lesser extent, changes in travel behavior in urban areas. A new diesel engine sold today produces 97% less air pollutant emissions than a similar older (pre-2006) vehicle. Personal vehicles sold in 2019 are more efficient, getting 32% higher gas mileage on average than a vehicle sold in 2004.2 To reduce travel by single occupant vehicles and improve air quality through reduced vehicle miles travelled, cities, counties and MnDOT are investing in infrastructure for people walking, bicycling, rolling and taking transit.
- Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, The Air we Breathe: The State of Minnesota’s Air Quality, Amanda Jarrett Smith, Ralph Pribble, Fawkes Steinwand. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2019. https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/lraq-1sy19.pdf.
- “The 2019 EPA Automotive Trends Report,” Environmental Protection Agency (Environmental Protection Agency, March 2020), https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100YVFS.pdf.
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Air Quality was previously included within Environmental Quality. The original Environmental Quality Trend Papers are below.