Report shows dirty air at dangerous levels in Twin Cities

Ramsey County, one of seven counties tracked for particulate matter, got an F for the first time since the Lung Association began compiling the annual report.

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A hazy Minneapolis skyline in 2003.

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For the first time in nearly two decades, air in the Twin Cities is dirty enough that it might violate federal health standards, the American Lung Association said in an analysis issued Wednesday.

That could lead to more health problems for Twin Cities residents and more hospitalizations for heart attacks, asthma and other lung disorders that can be triggered by the higher amounts of microscopic particles such as soot from leaf blowers, generators, diesel trucks, auto shops, light industry and, most of all, cars.

Ramsey County, one of seven counties tracked for particulate matter, got an F for the first time since the Lung Association began compiling the annual report. Air monitors there measured dangerously high levels of particulate matter 10 times between 2008 and 2010. Hennepin and other metro counties fared about the same as last year, but those counties also experienced several days with high levels of particulate matter in the air.

State pollution officials said that air quality in the Twin Cities metro has been declining for some time and that this summer it could routinely reach levels considered unhealthy by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"We are seeing this pattern all over the metro area," said Paul Aasen, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "We are getting right to the point where we could not meet those air quality standards in the near future."

As a result, the state could be required to develop a plan to clean up the air and win EPA approval. In a worst-case scenario, the EPA could step in and restrict any new economic development that adds to air pollution and even require Minnesota to take old cars off the road.

"Is there a Minnesota cash- for-clunkers program? There could be," Aasen said.

Getting more urgent

Like most of the country, Minnesota and the Twin Cities have seen steady improvement in air quality since the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments in the 1970s, and air quality here is much better than many areas on the east and west coasts.

But most of the improvement came from the regulation of large smokestack industries. Now, the rise in particulate matter is coming from small businesses and increasing use of home products and cars.

"It's engines," Aasen said.

Minnesota has time to address the problem, Aasen said, and he has initiated that conversation with industry and environmental groups through an umbrella group called Environmental Initiative.

What makes the challenge more urgent is that the EPA is expected to tighten the standards for smog, or ground level ozone, and particulate matter in the next two years, a move that the Lung Association and other public health groups say is long overdue. The Twin Cities and many other metropolitan areas will suddenly face much more stringent federal air quality requirements.

"Do we wait?" said Mike Harley, executive director of Environmental Initiative. "That's the question the PCA faces. It's not a great time to motivate ... [or] work on anything because we are hunkered down with the economy."

Either course could impose a price, officials said. Airborne particulates have been clearly linked to health conditions and is known to result in more doctor visits, hospitalizations and higher medical costs. State health officials who are studying health costs and air pollution say that each year in the Twin Cities an average of 224 people are hospitalized for respiratory problems because of small particle pollution. Nationally, the Lung Association said in its report, millions of people with conditions from asthma to heart disease are severely affected by air pollution.

"It's big," Aasen said. "It affects a lot of people, and those costs are not even on the ledger."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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